Indigenous communities are some of the most under-served in Canada with many located in remote, hard-to-reach areas, or areas struggling with poverty and lack of access to necessities like clean water.
This also means that often they lack access to educational experiences or resources that other communities take for granted — but Connected North is working to change that.
Connected North is a digital video network that connects students across Canada’s far North to educational experiences and resources they cannot access locally, using Cisco’s TelePresence technology.
For Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Cisco Canada Willa Black, Connected North is a passion project that came to be after she started looking into ways Cisco could give back.
“We knew that if we were going to do something to address major social issues that it should have our technology solutions at the centre of it,” Black told Global Citizen.
So, Cisco began a two-year research effort to determine what that might mean.
“It didn't take us too long to focus on the challenges in Indigenous communities,” Black said. “I saw [the head of the Inuit Peoples of Canada Mary Simon] speak at an event and she spoke about two major challenges facing her people. Number one: the unacceptably high youth suicide rate — 11 times the national average. And the other was the high drop-out rate in schools, which is about 70% by the time the kids hit... grade 9."
With these statistics in mind, Cisco set to work on creating a solution. They visited Indigenous communities to understand how their program could meet educator and community needs, and launched the Connected North pilot project in Iqaluit, Nunavut in 2013.
One of the first sessions connected students to a researcher at a lab at Carleton University in Ottawa. She conducted live experiments with coloured gases and showed the kids things that “sizzled, fizzled, and boiled.”
“It was all interactive and the kids hadn't seen anything like it before,” Black said. “It was immediately engaging for them.”
The teachers were also drawn in and started asking about professional training options and other opportunities for their students.
“Can we connect to virtual field trips? Could we visit museums? Could we get… math support? Could we share…Indigenous language revitalization programs? Could we connect to other schools in the North? … On and on and on and on. And we just said, ‘Sure, absolutely,’” Black explained.
The team started working with a few different schools as part of the trial in 2013, and then they formally launched in 2014 after receiving positive feedback and results from students and teachers involved in the pilot project.
Today, Connected North is managed by TakingITGlobal, a charity founded by two young Canadians focused on youth engagement and education. It operates in 55 schools across three territories and five provinces, connecting more than 12,000 students.
Classrooms are virtually connected to mentors, museums and science centres, literacy and math sessions, language learning, sports events and experiences, teacher training, mental health and wellness sessions, and more.
But Black stresses that they only provide to the schools what they ask for — sessions are customized to meet the needs of students and Black believes that it’s because of this that Connected North has never had a school drop out of the program.
“I think that we've established principles of mutual respect that have stood us in good stead and have enabled us to collaborate with communities to deliver the most effective and impactful support [and] encouragement… for their students,” she said. “It's about building resilience to ensure that these students are better positioned for success in school and in life.”
The sessions range in topics: ‘Insects with Wings & Crawly Things’ is put on by The Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, for example, or schools might look for literacy options like ‘A Promise is a Promise’ with Inuk author Michael Kusaguk.
Everything can be modified — Black said once a teacher asked if they could do anything for a student who was particularly interested in Shakespeare. Staff at Connected North called the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, England, and weeks later set up a session where actors from the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company performed improv for the students.
“We've had such enormous success with this program. If we keep going the way we're going in the next… several years, we could grow the program to support 100 schools — that’s a sixth of all schools operated by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities,” Black said.
But for Black, it’s about more than just education. It’s about taking responsibility for righting the wrongs in Canadian society, and companies doing their part in the world.
“We are in a position to deploy our technology. We have a robust ecosystem at Cisco — we can put in calls and our calls are returned,” Black said. “So if we have the ability to provide resources and partnership where they're needed most in this country, I think we have an obligation to step up and we have.”
Indigenous people in Canada and beyond have faced colonization and its devastating after-effects that cause systemic and intergenerational harm. In Canada, the history between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government is wrought with unethical and unequal treatment — residential schools, lack of inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, lack of access to clean water, combined with the aforementioned high rates of suicide, poverty, and school drop-out rates.
In order to form environments that are less harmful to Indigenous communities, Cisco belives that there is a need to understand how colonialism continues to enact itself in our everyday lives and seek ways to remove the structures of colonialism through decolonization.
There are misconceptions in the South about the potential of students in the North, Black said. She encourages Canadians to learn more about the path to reconciliation.
The key takeaway is that a student in the North should have access to the same resources and education as a student in the South.
“We need to do more in the South to reinforce the importance of inclusion as a core value in this country, because we need to do a better job of engaging Indigenous populations so they can share in the opportunity,” Black said. “We need more people in the South, not just paying lip service to this concept of reconciliation, but [actually] doing it.”