Tech Manitoba has done a lot of work over the past decade supporting the province’s growing tech sector.
But in addition to providing training in sophisticated new coding languages and helping recruit high-end talent, the organization is also doing some very grassroots training.
On the Labour Day weekend, Tech Manitoba delivered a basic digital literacy course in Lynn Lake to 22 people.
It’s part of a digital literacy program Tech Manitoba has been running since 2019 that’s helped about 2,800 people in the province gain fundamental skills and confidence to participate in the online world, but it was the first time it’s been offered in a remote northern locale.
Paula Canas, the program manager, said it has been her goal to get outside the province’s main cities and towns.
“During the pandemic we really understood the need,” she said.
The Lynn Lake session would not have been possible without a lot of help. Glenn Laycock, executive director of the Northern Manitoba Sector Council recruited an instructor and covered travel costs and organized connections in Lynn Lake.
The Marcel Colomb First Nation, located just south of Lynn Lake helped recruit participants as did Michael Raess, manager of environment & community relations with Alamos Gold Inc., a mining company that has a long-standing mineral development project in Lynn Lake.
Canas knows there is a need in remote communities but delivering the programs is not easy.
“We need people in the communities who are able to help us out,” she said. “Michael from Alamos Gold did this from the good of his heart.”
Raess said, “At Alamos Gold, one of our driving principles is to help residents build communities that will have brighter futures beyond our presence. When I learned about the training that Tech Manitoba offered, I jumped at the opportunity to help bring the classes to the community.”
Laycock and Canas have been talking for a year about organizing a trip. It had to be cancelled twice before it was scheduled for the Labour Day weekend. Canas said Raess had to knock on doors to remind people of the course.
Laycock said there is real dearth of computer equipment in many remote communities.
“I have been to reserves where the only computer connection is in the band office,” he said. “In many places they have nothing.”
Tech Manitoba also partnered with the Manitoba office of Computers for Schools, the non-profit organization that refurbishes old computers donated from government offices and the community and then makes them available to people who need them.
The original plan was to raffle off 10 laptops for the participants in Lynn Lake, but when Canas told Justin Menard, the executive director Computers for Schools about the session, he provided 15 more so that everyone in the session also received a free laptop.
“Everyone was very excited,” said Canas.
A recent study on human capital by RBC called Building Bandwidth: Preparing Indigenous youth for a digital future, found that even though Indigenous youth frequently use digital devices, they are 13 per cent less confident in their digital literacy skills than their non-Indigenous peers.
In addition to the courses — that cover basic things like using a keyboard, familiarity with programs like Word and Excel and tips on how to be safe on the internet — with the help of Computers for Schools, Canas has shipped about 700 laptops to people who need them across the province. Gardewine, the trucking company that does lots of work in the north has provided its services for free.
Tech Manitoba’s federal funding for the program runs out in March and Canas is extremely hopeful it will get renewed.
But the work has also underlined the need for better broadband services in the north, something that is beyond the purview of Tech Manitoba. (Canas said the digital literacy class focused on using the computer for things that did not require an internet connection.)
For instance in Lynn Lake, many people have to use the internet connection at the Alamos offices.
Canas is looking to bring her digital literacy program to more remote communities and she is looking to establish more partnerships like the ones with Computers for Schools and the Northern Manitoba Sector Council.
For the entire province to be able to have the kind of opportunities urban dwellers take for granted — like taking classes from home, applying for work, doing online banking, even online shopping — much work still needs to be done.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.