High-speed internet’s arrival in our community shows how connectivity is essential to First Nations’ success

This is an opinion column by Willie Sellars, who is the Chief of the Williams Lake First Nation in B.C. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In our all-connected world, it’s easy to take reliable, high-speed internet access for granted. Instant communication is the daily reality for millions of Canadians across the country, enabling cultural, professional and personal connections whenever and wherever you may be.

But Indigenous communities like mine know of a different reality.

According to the CRTC, only 31.3 per cent of reserve lands across Canada have internet access with a speed of 50/10 mbps, comparable to any city centre in the country. We are slightly more fortunate in B.C.: The same report states that 50/10 mbps service is not accessible to First Nations reserves in Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Ours is a remote community — the closest “big town” is Williams Lake, B.C., which has a population of 11,000, and we’re 300 kilometres northwest of Kamloops.

For as long as I can remember, simple tasks like opening an email attachment or trying to connect to social media were impossible because of how slow our internet connection was.

As a leader in my community, I regarded our lack of connectivity as yet another barrier to sharing in the success and opportunities of Canada — not being able to move at the speed of business, not being able to engage our membership in ways that other governments could, not being able to provide services people needed.

That’s why I was overjoyed when this past summer, the T’exelcemc, or Williams Lake First Nation, was among 56 First Nations communities in B.C. connected to the Telus PureFibre network. Our community was connected in partnership with Telus and the province’s Connecting B.C. Fund, which aims to improve internet service in Indigenous and remote communities.


High-speed internet's arrival in our community shows how connectivity is essential to First Nations' success
High-speed internet has brought huge improvements to the Williams Lake First Nation in terms of education, business and keeping members informed, writes Chief Wille Sellars. (Kiera Elise Photography)


Our community is comprised of 786 members and we’re a part of the Secwepemc Nation, which stretches across Shuswap Lake in the south to Quesnel Lake in the north and from the Columbia-Kootenay Range in the east to the Alexis Creek area in the west.

Our band members include teachers, lawyers, social workers, artists, loggers, ranchers, tradespeople, administrators, farriers and entrepreneurs. Many band members operate home businesses; some people sell arts and traditional crafts, including leatherwork, basketry, and beadwork, while others carry on our traditions through preparing and catering bannock, wind-dried salmon, deer meat, canned preserves and berry desserts.

High-speed internet connects us to one another more quickly.

Time previously spent completing tasks that urban communities take for granted — something as simple as printing a document or just googling something — can now be spent on more substantive things like community planning and prioritizing for our membership’s future.

Connectivity will allow our community to set its own priorities, both culturally and economically, and develop programming that will improve lives. That could mean things like new educational opportunities for our Elders, while access to telemedicine and remote health care adds a significant and possibly life-saving level of service.

Reliable high-speed internet means we can make significant advancements in critical services like on-reserve education, with tools like smart board technology — an interactive white board that can be connected to one or more laptops, tablets or other devices.

That means our young people were able to stay home and learn safely during the pandemic, and will be able to continue their education on reserve and have chances to succeed in a digital world long after the pandemic is over. These advancements also increase opportunities for youth that want to stay on reserve when they finish their schooling, and they have provided much needed continuity for local businesses.

Perhaps most importantly in a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Indigenous Peoples, our newfound connectivity has allowed our government to remain open and communicate effectively with our membership to ensure they have the information they need to stay safe.

We honour our Elders and treasure our children. And, with 4,000 years rooted on this land, we value our past and look toward our future. It’s why we are eager, at last, to join the digital age.

I grew up with our community being under constant boil water advisories, and I wasn’t able to safely drink water out of the tap until just a few years ago.

High-speed internet feels equally life changing, and I could not be happier. As we take this critical step forward toward being a healthier community, we will never take connectivity for granted.

Do you have a strong opinion that could change how people think about an issue? A personal story that can educate or help others? We want to hear from you.

CBC Vancouver is looking for British Columbians who want to write 500-600-word opinion and point of view pieces. Send us a pitch at [email protected] and we’ll be in touch. Novice writers are also encouraged to submit ideas.

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