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Pandemic highlights need for internet equality, First Nations chief says

TORONTO — The pandemic's widespread impact on Canadian business has made it easier to illustrate how important it is for Indigenous communities to have access to good high-speed communications, a First Nations chief from British Columbia's Interior region said Tuesday at a virtual event.

Chief Willie Sellars from Williams Lake First Nation, about 550 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, said artisans in his community have turned to digital applications such as TikTok and Facebook to promote their products while physical marketplaces are closed due to public health restrictions.

But he said faster, more reliable internet can't come quickly enough for businesses based outside major urban centres because "I know how much it has changed the trajectory of our community."

"It's opening up this whole other world for individuals to ... market themselves in a way that wasn't the norm before and wasn't the norm when we had a dial-up connection," Sellars said.

He said the business growth could be repeated by Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in rural and remote areas, but only if they have reliable and fast connectivity.

Carol Anne Hilton, founder and CEO of the Indigenomics Institute, agreed that a number of digital platforms have emerged or advanced because of COVID's challenges including the portal that acts as a gateway between customers and Indigenous businesses.

But there is a lack of good data about Indigenous entrepreneurs and Indigenous economic growth, she said.

Sellars said that his community — which is a regional hub — is fortunate to have better access to higher-speed communications than other First Nations in the surrounding area.

High-speed wireless and internet connectivity has allowed Williams Lake to provide services to its members and the many businesses it owns and runs as an Indigenous government, he said.

The remarks came during a panel discussion hosted by the Logic to discuss internet connectivity for Indigenous communities in British Columbia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2020.

David Paddon, The Canadian Press

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