February 26, 2021
Guest Blog

How Canada’s Digital Divide is Holding Back Philanthropy

Maureen James, Community Investment Program Manager, Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)

As COVID-19 forces more and more of our lives online, there’s a growing concern amongst funders that progress towards social, environmental, and racial justice will be more difficult to achieve while Canada’s massive digital divide persists.

Widespread work from home, school closures, and lockdown orders have made access to reliable, high-quality broadband services more important than ever. Unfortunately, fast internet service remains out of reach or too expensive for many Canadians.

Nearly one in 10 households in Canada has no internet connection. Only one-third of homes on First Nations reserves have access to what Canada’s telecommunications regulator considers “basic” internet speeds. Over one-third of low-income Canadians have sacrificed essentials like food to make sure they can pay for internet access. This data suggests some of our most vulnerable citizens are being left behind when it comes to connectivity.

On February 10th, Philanthropic Foundations Canada hosted a webinar titled Unconnected: How Can Philanthropy Close the Digital Divide in Canada, with myself, as well as Shelley Robinson of National Capital FreeNet and Doug Gore of the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Robinson is Executive Director of Ottawa’s National Capital FreeNet, a not-for-profit Internet service provider based in Ottawa that sells affordable internet services to a wide range of clients, including many low-income residents.

She warned that vulnerable and marginalized Canadians are being disproportionately affected by gaps in connectivity. “The digital divide mirrors existing social inequities and, of course, exacerbates them,” Robinson said and noted that their operation saw a 30% increase in network usage practically overnight when the pandemic began.

At the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), we manage the Community Investment Program, which includes over $1 million in grants for internet infrastructure, digital literacy, cybersecurity, and community leadership projects – especially those that benefit northern, rural, and Indigenous communities. It’s one of the few digitally-focused funding programs of its type in the country.

In October of last year, we published a first-of-its-kind report titled, Unconnected: Funding Shortfalls, Policy Imbalances and How They Are Contributing to Canada’s Digital Underdevelopment. We interviewed and surveyed representatives from over 100 civil society groups, researchers, Indigenous communities, and others in Canada, and found that funding for internet-related projects was scarce.

Since publishing Unconnected, we have spoken with funders and philanthropists at virtual gatherings and conferences, like November’s Future of Good Summit. While the funders we have met with have been quick to understand the connection between internet connectivity and other social goals, many have expressed apprehension around funding digital projects in their own work.

However, not all of them have let this fear factor hold them back.

The Ontario Trillium Foundation’s Doug Gore is working on Technovate, a new funding partnership between his organization, IBM Canada, Royal Bank of Canada, Community Foundations Canada, and Canadian Tire Jumpstart to help accelerate digital transformation in the not-for-profit sector. “It’s only been 8 to 10 months working in this field and it has been eye-opening,” Gore explained at PFC’s February 10th webinar. “We thought we could come in and make short-term investments to get through COVID-19, but quickly realized these were decades-old problems that were going to take a lot of work.”

Gore, whose background is largely in sports funding, leads partnership development at Trillium. He explained that while his lack of subject-matter knowledge on digital development gave him pause early on, he later came to see it as a strength. “[It] allows [us] to come together with a certain humility that we don’t have the answers… “[Instead] we listen, we learn, and we take our cue from the community because they’re the ones doing the work.”

For people like Shelley Robinson, increased funding for the sector is welcome news. “There shouldn’t be one or two banner organizations doing [Canada’s digital development] work,” Robinson said. In a perfect world, she would like to see a diverse ecosystem where collaboration and amplification of one another’s work is the norm.

While there is a good reason for community groups to be excited about initiatives like Technovate, it is, unfortunately, far from the norm. One of the key conclusions from CIRA’s Unconnected report is that Canada needs a bigger, more diverse and transparent funding ecosystem. Right now there are very few players engaged in funding projects that help Canada’s digital skills and connectivity divide.

For funders and philanthropic organizations that wish to develop their own digital philanthropy streams, one of the most critical and underfunded areas is community leadership (or policy advocacy). As we say in our report:

Funding for public participation to engage in policy advocacy around how the internet is deployed in Canada is just about non-existent and this urgently needs to change so that the real needs of communities are not overlooked when governments make decisions regarding pricing and infrastructure investments.

Sustainable funding is perhaps the most pressing issue for community-level organizations working to advance policy advocacy in Canada, and practitioners like Robinson agree.

“Funding advocacy is a key piece. How we change things at the policy level is really important… [Our community] wants us to do more work around digital advocacy to try and change some of the structural problems that exacerbate [digital inequity].”

Without this funding, policy debates will continue to favour the private sector, industry participation over researchers, communities, civil society groups and not-for-profits with expertise on how to promote digital equity.

A recent analysis from the independent internet service provider TekSavvy found that Canada’s largest telecommunications companies met with the federal government and telecommunications regulator 577 times over a twelve-month period (January 2020 to January 2021), compared to only 10 meetings from civil society organizations during that same time frame.

With no clear timeline for the end of the pandemic on sight, there has never been a better time for funders from across the country to help kickstart a new tradition of digital philanthropy in Canada.

Whether your first issue of concern is environmental conservation, homelessness, or mental health services for youth, all of your goals will be easier to achieve when each and every Canadian has the skills and connectivity to participate in our culture, our democracy, and our economy.

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