Sunday, May 22, 2022

Siksika Nation community members are growing their local tech sector

To grow the Siksika First Nation’s local IT sector, 25 community members advanced their digital skills by completing training delivered by the Blackfoot Tech Council and CompTIA, an American non-profit trade association that issues professional certifications for the information technology industry.

The training offered two courses: One for students who have no experience in the technology field, and one for IT professionals looking to tighten up their skills. 

The courses

The first course, completed by fifteen individuals, was a virtual course centred on CompTIA IT Fundamentals, a pre-career certification that helps learners expand their digital skills.

The idea behind it was “to build digital skills and IT fundamentals concepts [including] career preparation workshops, placement services, and obviously the training around the IT fundamentals program,” said Mark Plunkett, vice president of the CompTIA Tech Career Academy.  

The second course involved mentored instruction for 10 local IT and communications specialists on CompTIA A+ certification, a recognized industry standard for establishing a career in IT.

According to Cassius Smith, the Siksika Nation’s IT network manager, “The second course was actually more or less for professionals like myself. And we took these courses… to upgrade our current training and give us a refresher on some of the stuff that we’ve already taken.”

Plunkett said the digital skills being taught in both courses are the foundation for a successful tech career and will help these individuals progress. 

The students who completed the first course are now participating in paid practicum placements with Siksika Nation departments to mentor alongside in-house IT experts and get a more hands-on experience with their new skills.

Donnie Spring Chief putting new skills into practice in a paid practicum placement with Siksika Nation department areas.

Smith and his colleagues David Panther Bone and Jennifer Kohlhammer are two of the mentors who are working with the students. 

“It’s a great mentorship program. It gives students a chance to utilize those newfound skills in the workforce and I think this gives an opportunity to build capacity in learning on the job. I think a very important way of learning too, is not only in class but also putting those skills to use on the job,” David Panther Bone, who works in the IT department for Siksika Health, said. 

The course is open to any Siksika Nation member who is interested, opening doors to community members of all ages. Students range in age and gender, an extremely important factor when it comes to diversifying the IT industry. 

“There’s a good number of women in there and all ages too,” said Siksika communications specialist Jennifer Kohlhammer. “I have a practicum student that’s working with me personally right now; she’s actually an elder in the community and a woman, so it’s kind of cool that she spans all of those diversity gaps and she’s very interested in getting into the industry even at the stage of life that she’s at right now. It’s awesome to see.”

The digital divide

Apart from diversifying the industry, one of the training program’s main goals is to help with the digital divide that First Nation communities often face. 

A CBC article from July of last year details the findings of a report by RBC that talks about the digital divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada, and raises concerns about the growing gap and how it could affect Indigenous youths’ financial futures and ability to thrive. 

“I think having… IT specialists local to the community is really beneficial. I think it gives that real, holistic approach and I think also too, it’s very encouraging for us. We always talk about the lack of resources and the digital divide as well. I mean, it’s something we’re looking to build,” Panther Bone said. 

With the pandemic pushing numerous services online, this program comes at a good time, as technology is becoming more and more essential to everyday life.

“We’re [IT] not really classified as an essential service. But I think that we definitely are essential because I’ve been on the go since day one of COVID. And we work in the background, but we’re definitely needed on pretty much every aspect. Because you need the internet, right?” Smith said.

Internet access for everyone

The RBC report also reveals that only 24 per cent of households in Indigenous communities have access to quality, high-speed internet. In addition to the training programs, the Blackfoot Tech Council is also working on a project to expand internet access within the Siksika Nation. 

According to Kohlhammer, internet access became a big problem early in the pandemic when it was getting hard to distribute information about COVID-19 to the community. She also said that it was challenging for patients who were reliant on devices which required some internet connectivity to monitor blood pressure and glucose levels. 

This project is currently underway and the community has been fundraising for it. The tech council is working on getting news about it to the community through media that don’t necessarily require strong internet connections, such as radio stations. 

“We early on contracted some engineers and some logical network designers to work with us on developing a plan that’s going to upgrade and enhance the infrastructure for the whole Siksika Nation in terms of its internet connectivity,” she said. “That will hopefully enhance the access and the speeds available.”

Kohlhammer said this internet upgrade, as well as the training program, will contribute to a stronger tech sector and open up more job opportunities in the community. 

“I can’t wait for that upgrade to be in place… I think it’s going to also give us access to people and give people access to all of us in a much more significant way,” she said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Samira Balsara
Samira Balsara
Samira is a writer for IT World Canada. She is currently pursuing a journalism degree at Toronto Metropolitan University (formally known as Ryerson) and hopes to become a news anchor or write journalistic profiles. You can email her at sbalsara@itwc.ca

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