Bridging with broadband in rural B.C.

🕔Sep 22, 2005

In the recent throne speech delivered by the Governor General on behalf of the ruling Liberal Party, Adrienne Clarkson mentioned expanded broadband infrastructure in rural areas and community development in the same breath.

In fact, the themes of increased access to broadband communication and social renewal in communities are features of Paul Martin’s agenda for the country going back to when he became prime minister more than a year ago. But what does this emphasis really mean for the remote, rural communities found in northwest B.C.? Specifically, can the “bridging of the digital divide” taking place in the region make a difference in ensuring all community members have what is needed materially and socially to fully participate in community life?

Research on information system technology in other parts of the world suggest the first step in beginning to answer this question lies in community analysis regarding oral versus written communication preference. Mike Metcalfe, an information technology researcher from the University of South Australia, writes “The majority of people [in the world] either cannot, have not, do not want to, or don’t need to communicate in the written form. This majority of ‘oral people’ is not limited to indigenous or Third World peoples but also business and trades people in more developed nations.”1

Community analysis of the remote, rural communities in the northwest points to the fact that the region’s citizens are predominantly based in an oral culture. This oral majority includes First Nations and non-First Nations alike. Although there is an oral majority living here, broadband is mostly implemented as a read/write communication tool. Finding ways to make a closer fit between the local communication preference and the technology is critical writes Metcalfe. “Communities need to examine [information] technology carefully in the context of their situation and determine what they want from the technology… In particular, exploration of communities’ preferred modes of informing and design of communication technology solutions to support those preferences needs to occur.”2

One example of focusing on design improvements to better the chances of broadband technology supporting community development is taking place in Hazelton. At The Learning Shop, an informal education storefront, young people are working to create a Web exhibit exploring Gitxsan and Settler cultures and how the respective worldviews have interfaced resulting in the values and visions held in Hazelton’s communities today. The building blocks of the exhibit will mainly be oral; visual components will include audio interviews, video and photographs. An accompanying curriculum guide for using the Web exhibit in a Grade 10 social science setting and a cultural journalism research tool kit for students are also part of the project.

“A goal is creating skills among young adults through a common understanding of community so that when contentious issues arise we can learn to disagree and still live as neighbours,” says Melanie Sondergaard, a project co-ordinator with The Learning Shop, and also enrolled in the University of Victoria’s graduate program in educational leadership. “That way, when difficult choices arise in community development, people have more of a chance to work through them with each other, without tearing a community apart.”

Anne Docherty, founder of The Learning Shop and director of the storefront’s various activities, says the process of community development is to ensure all community members have what is needed materially and socially to fully participate in community life.

“It is a melding of social and economic goals,” says Docherty, who has more than two decades of experience in community education in the northwest, and who also holds a graduate degree in the discipline.

The act of fully participating and engaging in community life described by Docherty and Sondergaard can be helped by the increased access to information broadband communication affords. But simply having the huge information source at your fingertips that broadband permits is not enough on its own. The late Neil Postman, who chaired the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University, described the notion that critical issues in society require technical solutions through fast access to information as “nonsense.” What he wrote in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, almost 10 years ago lends valuable insight to the consideration of broadband technology today: “Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. Where people are dying of starvation, it does not occur because of inadequate information. If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information.”3

Postman’s observations encourage us to not focus so much on the information glut broadband provides but how, as a communication tool, it supports community engagement to move from passive to empowered levels. The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, a Canadian think tank, describes this as moving from a situation where local residents “are informed of issues by external organizations” to one where local residents “initiate and lead, with external support, on issues.”-4

Whether broadband assists with building engagement ultimately depends upon how we use it within our communities to build the relationships that our social fabric is constructed from. If the design of a tool based on broadband access doesn’t fit the communication preference of the community, or if the focus on broadband is predominantly on the speed and amount of information available, then the usefulness of the technology in community development is questionable. By reflecting on the role of broadband communication in community engagement, while the technology is still young in the northwest, the opportunity exists to increase its role in enhancing the chances of all individuals fully participating in remote, rural community life.


  1. Appropriate Technology for Oral Knowledge Sharing. 2000. Mike Metcalfe, Bec Neill, Phil Marriott, Information Systems Doctoral School, University of South Australia.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman, Vintage Books, 1995
  4. from Social Inclusion and Community Economic Development, A Literature Review (2004), Mike Toye and Jennifer Infanti, A Canadian CED Network publication,