Canada’s innovation sectors are booming—according to the latest Canadian Venture and Private Equity Association report, 2021 is on track to being a record-breaking year. And many tech companies, newly flush with capital, are now looking to grow their teams. However, access to these opportunities needs to include Indigenous communities and nations—we have much to offer.

Calls are growing for Canada to live up to the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it’s clear that as Canada starts rebuilds after the pandemic, work needs to be done to ensure that the innovation community is more inclusive. A 2019 report from Brookfield Institute found that people of colour make up less of a third of the Canadian tech workforce. Indigenous peoples are particularly underrepresented, making up just 2.2% of the workforce.

This is something that Jarret Leaman is actively working to change.

A member of the Magnetawan First Nation, Leaman is the CEO of software firm Akawe Technologies and the founder of the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology, Toronto’s newest Indigenous recruitment incubator. With his team at CIIT, Leaman is developing programs to help make vital connections for Indigenous entrepreneurs in technology to help them bridge the digital gap.

“I’ve always been that person who’s like, well, someone’s got to do it and if I don’t do it, it could be another 10 years before someone else comes around,” Leaman says. “There is so much that needs to be done.”

Here, he talks about the issues around data sovereignty and access to the internet, plus why you should think about what you post on TikTok.

For Indigenous peoples, amplifying culture is a highly valued undertaking. How do you integrate modern technology and business opportunities with those aims?

When I was getting teachings growing up, we weren’t allowed to talk on the phone when Elders were around. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, that was a real no-go.

We’re seeing a significant change. With TikTok and with the pandemic, what we really saw was a lot of our culture being put on media. And that is something that concerns me. That is knowledge and data that you give up and it’s gone—you don’t own it and it’s out there. It’s one of the things that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) has outlined—Indigenous data is acknowledged as sovereign and has to be treated that way.

We’ve seen a lot of work being done in the university sector with regards to teaching culture. Technically you can’t own traditional knowledge but you’re teaching it as part of a course, so therefore you have to own it in order to be selling it to students. And the same thing can be said around non-profits that are working in learning spaces. Well, if you’re a non-Indigenous company—do you have the legal right to own that knowledge?

This is why it’s so important to think about what you put forward. Say I’m a TikTok person and I’m showing you my smudge and I’m showing you teachings—well, TikTok owns that. People are being paid to keep creating content, and it’s going into TikTok’s library and they basically have given away their rights and that’s not even their rights to give away. If we start to see our communities coming on board with a stronger governance regime with regards to data sovereignty we’ll see that clip back. It really complicates a bunch of already existing processes, just even in tech and data, but in many other sections.

Culture and technology help us connect, but I think we may be a little bit short-sighted on what we’re sharing, how we’re using it and how we’re giving up control of the data and knowledge that has been within our communities for millennia.

So how do you protect that knowledge?

You can do it, through a blockchain system, where you promote that video, put it out there, and then retract it at any time and then keep ownership of it again, and that’s what does blockchain does—it’s a consensus-based decision-making contract between multiple servers that have to all align to the principles and governance for that transaction to be approved. If one of those fails, then the transaction stops and you can’t get access to the data. So, there is a way for our community to access and control our own data in order to have power over our own selves and our communities.

Culture and technology help us connect, but I think we may be a little bit short-sighted on what we’re sharing, how we’re using it and how we’re giving up control of the data and knowledge that has been within our communities for millennia.

What challenges are Indigenous entrepreneurs facing, especially given all the massive disruptions and impact cause by the pandemic? Are connections provided better through professional development or through an infrastructure approach?

We can’t be part of the digital economy or be digitally inclusive if our on-reserve communities don’t have access to the internet, or have the appropriate speeds to be able to work and do video calls. This has been an issue for a long time and it’s only been exacerbated during the pandemic.

There are significant challenges in the connectivity space. On my reserve, the Magnetawan First Nation which is just outside of Parry Sound—we don’t even really have internet, even though the wire runs right beside the train tracks. We’re right off of the highway, but the internet is really poor on reserve. A lot of our communities do have access to internet, and they have a central point—usually the school—but then, there’s no connection from the school out. And when we get into an urban setting—for some people connectivity can be unaffordable. In Toronto where I am, my bill is around $140 a month. Obviously, if you’re low income then you have no access.

If we want to get a region to collaborate on building an independent, ISP service provider, think about say, 10 communities, think of how many meetings we’re going to have—are we working together? What are the principles? And then actually get into the strategy and plan and move it forward. This is where Tribal Councils are really good for this kind of thing, but I think they have significant barriers with regards to politics. Some people want it, some people don’t. Some people think water is more important than food, and some people think food is more important than tech, and some people think tech is more important than whatever. It’s finding that balance and now, how do you not do one or the other—but rather, in how do you balance in a regional strategy?

What else do we need to think about in terms of bridging the digital divide?

We need to think about governance. For instance, if you’re selling from an online store on reserve—is that tax exempt? How does that work with online sales and is it only from different treaties and there’s a whole other host of issues that arise and so. One of the things that we see coming down the pipeline is the data sovereignty clauses within UNDRIP—how does this apply to Indigenous people on reserve or even an Indigenous tech company?

There’s not a legal regulatory framework that’s been established and that needs to happen—it’s needed for blockchain development, for example. We need to work on getting access, we need to work on our own set of rules on how data works in our territories—you can start to see why not a lot of work has not been done. It’s multifaceted and really requires a breadth of understanding of intricate social and technology issues as well as legal and governance.

And then that brings up the issue of having a solid digital infrastructure.

If we’re going to have a digital economy on-reserve, and say a government is going to tax it, or they want to encourage business among themselves or with other First Nations, then the First Nation government themselves needs to have a digital infrastructure—which most of them don’t have, some don’t even have a website, right?

There are so many pieces that need to be built out. How do we manage our data? What are protocols around ethnical sourcing of data, use of data, the monetization of it? What’s the data strategy that’s in play? If the communities themselves don’t have a website, the learning is so steep—it’s going to take time for that. It’s also not a top priority—like, many don’t have clean drinking water or enough food, right?

That’s causing Indigenous people to miss out on substantial economic development opportunities. We can’t really wait until the water and housing crisis is solved, because we’re missing out on the new way of doing business and the new way of doing school. It’s kind of this weird Catch-22.

Describe your most prized project underway for 2021-2022.

We are really looking forward to launching our Skills Acceleration Program with MaRS, CILAR and our partners. Think of it as a university career centre program on steroids. We’re going to be looking at creating a link for recent grads in college and university who want to explore opportunities in tech. It’s more than just tech—I work in tech and can barely work my video screen, but tech needs people in so many different avenues.

It does require a significant level of education and training to get into this space, whether it’s in technology and understanding graphic design, or advanced government relations and corporate relations abilities to be sitting at executive tables with presidents of these large companies and it can be intimidating.

This program will give them an opportunity for them to see what the sector is about. We are planning our partnerships with an Indigenous Institute so the Indigenous knowledge and culture component will be taught by, for and with Indigenous people.

What is your advice for anyone trying to break through into this industry?

If you desire to work in tech, the opportunity and potential is limitless. It takes a village to run a company. Just because you’re a tech company, it doesn’t mean everyone in the company knows tech. And so, a great way to get into the space for a lot of our community members initially may be through art.

How do you take that and use that visual component into networking, video games, those kinds of things? If you look at Sera-Lys McArthur (“Thunderbird”) and that huge Rainbow Six game that launched and there was an Indigenous character based on her—they did all the research on it and they used a whole visual component based on the Mohawks defending against the colonial armies. There are a lot of stories and games that are Indigenous that are both tactful and very respectful; there’s a lot more space for our people to be engaged in that way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.