Canadian tech must embrace Indigenous reconciliation

Content Warning: the following contains discussions of residential schools and the ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Boozhoo aanii, Jarret Leaman ndishnikaaz Magnetawan First Nation nidoonjibaa (Niizh manidoowag). Nindaanikoobijigan Willis Paul (Shawanaga First Nation), Isabelle Noganosh (Magnetawan First Nation), Jeffery Leaman (Magnetawan First Nation) and Catherine Witty (Canada).

Aaniish inaa akawe ninga-gaagiizomaag aadizookaanag niizhwaak ashi-naanan abinoojiinyag.

Hello, my name is Jarret Leaman (Two-Spirited) and I am a member of Magnetawan First Nation. My ancestors are Willis Paul (Shawanaga First Nation), Isabelle Noganosh (Magnetawan First Nation), Jeffery Leaman (Magnetawan First Nation) and Catherine Witty (Canada).

I would like to start by acknowledging the spirits of over 1000 children.

Please join me with the families and the kin of the Tk’emlúps te Secweìpemc Nation, Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation, Muskowekwan Reserve (Treaty 4), and Cowessess First Nation in mourning the loss of these and the many more children whose lives were cruelly and inconceivably taken from them by the former Indian residential school system. As we bear witness to the immeasurable pain and grief of the families and communities, we offer our heartfelt sympathies and compassion to the many loved ones who have been, and will continue to be, affected by the tragic loss of the thousands of Indigenous children who never returned home.

As Indigenous peoples and settler allies, we join in solidarity with the families of the children lost (those found and those who remain unnamed and yet to be found), residential school survivors and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Indigenous leaders in the call for continued truth-telling and accountability by settler governments and institutions regarding the genocide and systematic theft of children from their families perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Indigenous in Tech?

While Canada is often viewed globally as a thriving hub of innovation, investment, technology, and education within the digital economy, Indigenous communities and practitioners are largely missing from the conversations and spaces about the future ‘smart’ and decentralized technologies.

Despite millennia of long-evolved Indigenous knowledge and robust consensus-based community governance models – in which the parallels of decentralized software and digital governance cannot be ignored – Indigenous peoples are often viewed through a colonial lens as antiquated societies with relevance only in the past.

The landscape of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian technology sector has been outlined by a 2019 Brookfield Institute report, which states that participation in tech occupations in 2016 was much lower (at 2.2 percent, or 13,000 people) when compared with individuals with non-Indigenous identities (at 5.2 percent, or 921,000 people).

Who are Canadas Tech Workers Brookfield Institute 2019

Entering the technology sector in 2017, I was returning to Toronto from a whirlwind trip as part of the Governors General’s Leadership Conference. During this amazing experience, I was able to visit many communities and/or their traditional territories ranging from The Squamish Nation (Vancouver),Taa’an Kwächän and Kwanlin Dün territories (Whitehorse and Old Crow), Inuvialuit & Gwich’in (Inuvk), Tuktoyaktuk/Tuk-tu-yaaq-tuuq, Åíídlîî Køç First Nation (Fort Simpson) Nahæâ Dehé Nation, Yellowknives Dene First Nation (Yellowknife), Enoch Cree Nation (Edmonton), the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People (Ottawa), and many more.

While in the North, I noticed a lack of access to the internet (sometimes completely), mobile networks, and community digital infrastructure similar to many First Nation communities located in the southern part of the country. These gaps were made more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in our northern and remote communities.

When I came back to Toronto, I settled into the technology and innovation sector. I was not prepared for the very low understanding of Indigeneity and its representation in the technology and innovation sectors within Canada. After co-founding the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology with Paul Dube, we set out to provide programming that provides excellence in technology training, increases Indigenous representation in the tech industry, and promotes problem solving using technology with an Indigenous lens.

“Indigenous peoples’ community and economic well-being for the next seven generations is well-poised to exercise Indigenous digital sovereignty for the delivery of services to its citizens and to exercise our inherent rights unburdened with the same colonial legacies our current efforts are constrained by. It is imperative we invest in and grow our participation and capacity exponentially.”

Leanne Bellegarde, Q.C.
Member of the Peepeekisis First Nation, Treaty 4 Saskatchewan
President, Akawe Technologie

For the next year, I attended many Indigenous innovation and technology gatherings, events, and conferences across Canada and the United States, and I will admit that seeing another Indigenous person was like finding a needle in a preverbal haystack. It was starting to harken back to similar sentiments from 2010, feeling like the elusive Two-Spirited person in the regional business community in Toronto.

After all, I had previously worked within the post-secondary education and non-profit sectors, which had residential school education initiatives that provided appropriate processes and spaces to conduct these serious conversations with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2015.

With a global spotlight shining a light on the horrors and atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous children as part of the residential school system, many are realizing the magnitude and wide-ranging devastating effects on Indigenous peoples, communities, and co-workers.

This education system was funded and controlled by the Canadian Government and various church organizations for well over 150 years, not coming to an end until 1996. In 2021, most Canadians have widely condemned the residential school system and have been particularly moved by the recent tragedies of the hundreds of mass graves detected on First Nations lands in BC and Saskatchewan.

The technology and innovation sectors have mostly remained silent as the country and world awaken to the horrific practices systematically committed against thousands of Indigenous children across Canada.

It is important to remember that the Canadian residential school system has been described as a “cultural genocide” by Justice Murray Sinclair, the former Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These are important conversations that need to happen respectfully within the technology and innovation sectors and only in collaboration with Indigenous governments, institutions, or organizations. Indigenous voices must be a part of this conversation.

A path to reconciliation through sector collaboration

In this era of Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous Sovereignty in Canada, all sectors are being called to commit to both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action and the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) through their reconciliation efforts and respectful engagement with Indigenous communities and organizations. The TRC clearly states that the actual process of reconciliation would only be possible through meaningful, long-term actions by settler governments, institutions, and societies to repair and rebuild relationships with Indigenous peoples and dismantle colonial structures and systems in Canada.

While reconciliation happens in many different ways, we know that truth has to come first. It requires a long, committed, and ongoing process of truth-telling. The dismantling of settler colonialism. The repair and recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. And healing that involves both settler institutions and Indigenous peoples.

It is long overdue that we have these conversations in the technology sector. Companies and organizations need to listen and learn from Indigenous peoples – their realities, experiences, and priorities for the future – if we want to work together to create the culturally appropriate and sustainable pathways for capacity and employment for Indigenous peoples to participate and lead in the innovation economy.

Indigenous communities have the youngest population in Canada, one that is anticipated to grow an average of five times (19.5 percent) faster than the national average. We, therefore, aim to increase Indigenous representation in our sector to greater than 13,000 tech workers nationally.

Indigenized tech skills and training

Through my work with the non-profit Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology (CIIT), we are committed to developing and promoting the next generation of leaders to prosper in the Canadian technology sector. Established in 2017, the non-profit organization uses Indigenous values, which are embedded throughout the entire organization. Created to increase representation of Indigenous talent working in tech, the Centre works with public, private, and academic organizations to bridge the technological and social divides in the Indigenous community.

Our goal is to combine technical and social innovation to increase better social outcomes for Indigenous peoples and communities. CIIT’s Tech Skills Accelerator brings Indigenous peoples together from across Ontario using shared values and fundamentals of Indigeneity.

Learners are provided with a culturally curated curriculum paired with land-based learning led by our Indigenous education institutions and partners. The program also includes diverse exposure to training modules such as user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design, the basics of blockchain, software quality and testing, and other modules are also a key focus of the eight-week incubator program.

Indigenous peoples and communities have incredible talent to offer in Canada’s digital economy. Currently comprising approximately four percent of Canada’s total population, the long-term economic benefits of increasing labour force participation rates among Indigenous peoples could lead to a $27.7 billion annual contribution to the Canadian GDP if all opportunities were equal and the Indigenous labour force was fully mobilized (per the NIEDB, Reconciliation Report 2016).

“We know we have an opportunity to demonstrate the action and commitment needed to make progress along the path of truth and reconciliation. This starts with acknowledging our truth – we have centuries of unlearning to do and we can only make progress by working with Indigenous leaders to understand what opportunities will create meaningful change in the innovation economy.

Support for Indigenous peoples must be active every day and must include action. We’re thrilled and honoured to be working with CIIT to create programs that can impact long-term sustainable change for Indigenous communities across this land.”

Claudette McGowan
CILAR Chair and Global Executive Officer
Protect Fusion & Cyber Experience, TD Bank

The Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism, (CILAR) has been helping CIIT navigate within the technology and innovation sectors. In partnership with CILAR members, CIIT is embarking on a reconciliation journey to achieve our shared vision and goals of Indigenous inclusion using a holistic approach focused not only on skills and education training, but also long-term employee retention and career support strategies.

CIIT has collaborated across Canada with many organizations and businesses, such as Corporate Growth sponsors Akawe Technologies and PayPal Canada. We are grateful for their commitment to reconciliation in the technology and innovation spaces.

Here are a few immediate actions you can take to support Indigenous inclusion and reconciliation.

As Leaders and Allies:

As Organizations:

We all have an opportunity to champion Indigenous peoples’ contributions to the innovation economy and amplify their voices in the tech space. We are calling on tech and innovation leaders to show up as allies and to demonstrate the action and commitment needed every day to support Indigenous Nations from coast to coast to coast, and to enrich our technology ecosystem with Indigenous innovation.

Jarret Leaman, B.B.A., M.I.R.
Member of Magnetawan First Nation
Co-Founder, Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology
Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Akawe Technologies


Jarret Leaman

Jarret Leaman is Anishinaabe (Ojibway) and a member of Magnetawan First Nation. Jarret is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for Akawe Technologies and the Co-Founder of the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology. Jarret also runs Ayaabe Management, working with Indigenous talent in the entertainment industry.

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