Written by Andrew Seale

When Alejandro Mayoral-Banos set out to build Indigenous Friends, a social network application to connect First Nations, Métis and Inuit with resources, he realized the biggest hurdle was likely to be the divide in the way these communities share knowledge.

“A lot of the elders were very skeptical about providing knowledge and putting it into a platform because then anyone can take it,” explains Mayoral-Banos, the app’s founder. Through research, he discovered the Traditional Knowledge labels and licensing, a way to denote and recognize the cultural heritage and ownership behind that particular piece of information.

“When an elder wants to share something in a platform, they can attach the Traditional Knowledge label so people know that knowledge can't be copied to Facebook and shared to everyone,” says Mayoral-Banos.

But finding the right way to protect traditional and cultural information was just one of many hurdles Mayoral-Banos had to overcome while building the app.

The Indigenous Friends founder felt compelled to tackle the isolation after moving from Mexico to Toronto in 2014 to pursue a master's degree surrounding information technology and native studies at York University. As an Indigenous person in Mexico, Mayoral-Banos felt a connection to the Indigenous population in his new home.

He started immersing himself in the Indigenous community at York and through conversations with elders and students realized the need for a centralized resource to combat some of the social challenges that come with being an Indigenous person in Toronto.

“They are feeling this cultural disconnection,” he says. “And sometimes they don't want to identify themselves as Indigenous because of harassment and discrimination… they're being excluded (and) it’s difficult to find other peers who relate.”

The app, which took three years of lengthy consultations with a myriad of members from Indigenous communities, is free but requires a membership tag, which students can acquire through York’s Indigenous student centre. Users get access to not just a place to connect but resources – faculty, elders, staff – within the university. “We wanted to create a safer space for Indigenous identities in post-secondary educational institutions.”

It’s currently implemented at both York and the University of Manitoba, with a goal to deploy in five universities over the next five years.

Mayoral-Banos has taken a unique approach to fund the project. While he spearheaded the research and coding, he didn’t want to claim ownership over the app. True to the nature of inclusion, he wanted it to be owned by the community, so he established the Indigenous Friends organization to hold the intellectual property.

Last spring the organization received $210,000 through the Ontario Trillium grant to support the expansion.

“With a not-for-profit structure, it has been easier to find funding and give the property to the community,” he says. It’s part of a long-term goal to find a balance between technology and reconciliation.

“First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada are facing a lot of issues, problems from the history of colonization, the problem of health, the problem of education, there are a lot of different problems,” says Mayoral-Banos. “We cannot address all the problems in just one simple mobile application.”

But it’s certainly a start.

Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)