On Courtenay Gibson’s desk sits a growing stack of applications from young Musqueam members, each vying for a free refurbished computer.
The Musqueam First Nation was recently selected for a laptop giveaway designed to help its youth population span the digital divide.
For both the band and its young members, the secondhand, donated computers represent a chance to connect with the world that is often lacking for Canada’s aboriginal groups. They are less likely to have computers in their homes than other Canadians.
“It gives us the opportunity to help facilitate further learning, further education, and help people who are even possibly working on job searches to further their careers,” said Gibson, Musqueam’s recreation co-ordinator and an organizer on the project.
So far, 15 applications have rolled in from kids as young as 12 to 29-year-olds who barely come in under the age limit.
The requests reflect the diversity of their needs. Many want a laptop to handle school and university work. One wants a computer to launch an at-home mechanic business.
But with only 20 laptops to give out and still more requests expected before the deadline at the end of the month, Gibson will soon have to decide who among Musqueam’s burgeoning youth population will get the goods.
High demand for resources
According to a 2006 census profile, approximately 49 per cent of Musqueam’s indigenous population is younger than 30, creating a big pool of potential applicants.
“We do really have a large youth population,” Gibson said. “Administratively, we have a large focus on helping youth with their education, with their recreation, and just basically keeping them busy and learning.”
Earlier this year, Gibson and her colleagues sent a grant application to Sky’s the Limit Youth Organization, a Toronto-based charity that places laptops with young people in need.
In September, Sky’s the Limit responded by announcing its first donation to Musqueam.
But even the charity’s resources have been outstripped by demand for computers, said executive director Rema Tavares.
“We have a request in from the Urban Native Youth Association for an additional 71. However, we don’t have the funding for that right now, so we’re working on it,” she said.
Altogether, Sky’s the Limit has provided 365 laptops to First Nations groups since its foundation in 2004. This fall, another 85 are slated for delivery, including the Musqueam donation.
The indigenous gap
The donations are significant because many indigenous people do not own a computer or even share one at home.
The 2008-2010 First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey reports that only 60 per cent of indigenous adults live in a household with a computer, compared with 80 per cent in Canada overall. Even fewer had an Internet connection.
“It’s important for youth to have access to a computer at home, so that they have the hours of practice necessary to compete in today’s market,” said Tavares, adding that university application forms are all completed online now.
“This is about access to further education, access to employment, so you can apply online and write up a resume.”
A question of equality
Laptop ownership also imparts the “feeling of fitting in or being equal,” said Musqueam elder Larry Grant.
“A lot of our families are struggling. Not all of them, but many are,” said Grant. “This gives them some privacy and a more equal social status.”
Grant believes computer access can strengthen the Musqueam community through social networking and the free exchange of information.
“If you have access to a laptop and are able to get on the Internet, you can network with other people, and you can see some role models that you can aspire to,” he said. “Many of the issues that affect our people go viral, depending on what the issue is and who our friends are.”
While each laptop may cost Sky’s the Limit $250 to donate, Grant sees putting computers into the hands of youths as an investment.
“Access to technology opens doors to social awareness. It may not be intended for that, but it will lead to that. And that’s what we need more of in Canada, in the world,” said Grant. “It opens doors, and it opens your mind.”