Draft date: November 22, 2009

The K-Net Experience: Thematic Introduction to the Special Issue

Brian Beaton

K-Net, Keewaytinook Okimakanak


Susan O’Donnell

National Research Council of Canada


Adam Fiser

University of Toronto

Brian Walmark

Keewaytinook Okimakanak Research Institute (KORI)

K-Net, the Kuhkenah Network (www.knet.ca), is the telecommunications division of the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) tribal council in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. “Keewaytinook Okimakanak” means “Northern Chiefs” in the Oji-Cree language.

The K-Net office is located in Sioux Lookout, a small town on the edge of a vast area of boreal forest and sub-arctic zones that exceeds the size of France. Many of the First Nation / Indigenous communities on K-Net’s broadband networks are very remote, with fly-in access year round; during the coldest months, some also have limited vehicle access by barren winter roads ploughed through the snow on the frozen rivers, lakes and bogs. These communities are home to populations that range from several hundred to several thousand First Nations peoples of mostly Cree, Oji-Cree and Ojibway cultural traditions. See photo 1 below from one of these communities: Koocheching First Nation – a small remote community (east end of Sandy Lake) with a solar powered Kuhkenah Network node supplying every building (approximately 15) and the local residents with wireless internet services, a Voice-Over-IP telephone service and videoconferencing.

Photo 1: Koocheching First Nation – a small remote community (east end of Sandy Lake) with a solar powered Kuhkenah Network node supplying every building (approx 15) and the local residents with wireless internet services, a Voice-Over-IP telephone service and videoconferencing.

K-Net is known among community informatics researchers as a leader in community-based First Nations telecommunications infrastructure and services. Below, photo 2, shows the innovative Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) classroom in Lac Seul First Nation.

Photo 2: The Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) classroom in Lac Seul First Nation.

K-Net has been the focus of and has participated in numerous research efforts over the past decade, resulting in a substantial body of publications in JoCI, other journals, books and conferences (see On-line Resources in this journal edition). This is the first time K-Net has been the focus of an entire publication. With contributions from a diverse group of authors, this special issue of JoCI explores the K-Net experience through articles, case studies, notes from the field and reports. Our introduction to this special issue guides readers to the contributions thematically, using five themes.

Our first theme - History, community and participatory research – includes an article and a note from the field. “MyKnet.org: How Northern Ontario’s First Nation Communities Made Themselves At Home On The World Wide Web” introduces the unique K-Net experience. The research by Philipp Budka, Brandi Bell and Adam Fiser analyzes MyKnet.org, without doubt one of the most unique social networking sites in the world.

MyKnet.org is a loosely-structured system of personal homepages and blogs established in 2000. Individuals from more than 50 remote First Nations across Northern Ontario have made this social environment their virtual home. MyKnet.org currently has more than 30,000 active homepages with a user base that strongly reflects the demographic profile of Northern Ontario’s First Nation population. The Indigenous population in the Sioux Lookout zone numbers less than 30,000, and the people are younger than the Canadian average, with 50% aged 20 or younger. MyKnet.org is thus youth-based and built around the communities’ need to maintain social ties across great distances and intractable wilderness.

MyKnet.org’s development was contingent on K-Net’s policy to let individual users shape the form and content of their online experience. Unlike commercial online environments, MyKnet.org is explicitly community-driven and not-for-profit. It plays an important role in facilitating local inter- and intra-community interaction in a region that lacked basic telecommunications infrastructure well into the millennium.

The second contribution under this theme explores participatory research with K-Net. Building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect is an important component of doing research with Aboriginal communities. There has been a long history of discontent among First Nation peoples related to outside researchers coming into their communities. This discontent stems from the researchers’ misinterpretation of information provided by First Nations people, a lack of Aboriginal voice or perspective in the research and writing about the research, and the misappropriation of First Nations cultural information, to name just to a few of the many underlying problems. One way for researchers to approach research with First Nations is to cultivate partnerships and conduct participatory research.

The contribution is a note from the field: “In Search of Community Champions: Researching the Outcomes of K-Net’s Youth Information and Communications Technology Training Initiative,” by Kristy Tomkinson. The author is a graduate student working with K-Net to evaluate the Youth ICT Training initiative (YICT) which has been providing IT skills training and short-term employment opportunities to First Nations youth in Ontario's far North for 15 years. In partnership with the federal First Nations SchoolNet program (and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada), YICT is developed and guided by K-Net. Tomkinson’s study, initiated through a partnership between the University of Guelph and K-Net, has evolved from an evaluation of program outcomes to a search for community champions. This journey in research has revealed the importance of capturing the stories of individual creativity, ingenuity, needs, and relationships for community IT development. In photo 3, below, some youth from Deer Lake First Nation participate in wilderness canoe experiential training.

Photo 3: Canoeing in the remote north – youth from Deer Lake First Nation participate in wilderness canoe experiential training.

Our second theme Videoconferencing infrastructure for community use - features two articles exploring how K-Net is shaping the use of high-bandwidth network infrastructure to meet community needs. The technology discussed in both articles is videoconferencing: live audio and video communication exchange between two or more sites often located in remote First Nation communities.

As one of its many service roles, K-Net is a Regional Management Organization (RMO) for First Nation SchoolNet, a group of seven organisations across Canada that supports broadband connectivity and services in First Nation schools. Most of the RMOs have set up videoconferencing infrastructure capable of servicing the schools on their networks, a process that involved bringing network capacity into the communities. The community health centres on the K-Net network also use the videoconferencing infrastructure, as do many of the band councils, distance education centres and other community-based organizations. Communities are using this community network infrastructure in a variety of ways.

The first article is: “How K-Net and Atlantic Canada’s First Nation Help Desk are Using Videoconferencing for Community Development,” by Mary Milliken, Susan O’Donnell and Elizabeth Gorman. Their research project, VideoCom, is working in partnership with K-Net and two other RMO organizations: Atlantic Canada’s First Nation Help Desk in Membertou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the First Nation Education Council in Wendake, Quebec. All three have set up videoconferencing networks linking First Nations communities spread out over large geographic areas.

The application, reach and scope of these communication networks have expanded to include cultural, social, and community development activities. Qualitative data collected in fifteen in-depth interviews with technical and administrative staff at K-Net and Atlantic Canada’s First Nation Help Desk reveal how both their relationship-building approach to networking, and their repurposed applications of videoconferencing, have supported development in the First Nations communities they serve. See photo 4, below: Monthly Elders multi-site videoconferencing sessions with healthy lunches.

Photo 4: Monthly Elders videoconferencing sessions with healthy lunches.

The second article, “Out from the Edges: Multi-site Videoconferencing as a Public Sphere in First Nations,” by Fenwick McKelvey and Susan O’Donnell, uses video analysis and semi-structured interviews to describe a case of community use of multi-site videoconferencing. The event discussed took place in 2007 and connected a number of First Nation communities across Canada with policy-makers and researchers in urban centres for simultaneous audio-visual exchange. The meeting was hosted by K-Net Services.

The VideoCom research project hosted the event to study the feasibility of public meetings through videoconferencing and to document an example of community uses of the technology. The article suggests that videoconferencing created a public sphere that joined the First Nations communities taking part in this event. K-Net is developing its infrastructure to better support and increase these public spaces where communities can share information. The public sphere is a way of thinking about how these activities contribute to the well-being of communities. The case described in the article illustrates an opportunity to further integrate videoconferencing into community development.

The network infrastructure supported and managed by K-Net is used to provide many vital community services. These include most notably health and education services and also a range of others such as justice services. Our third theme – Community services - includes a note from the field, a case study and a report.

Service provision in First Nation communities, particularly those in rural and remote locations, has suffered from a range of difficulties including exceptional cost, inefficiencies in the delivery system, high turn-over in service staff, and quality control, among others. In many cases, the consequence has been overly costly, inadequate or inappropriate services that penalize communities on the margins of conventional (urban-centric) service areas and markets. Broadband networks and ICT can significantly address the challenges of remoteness. K-Net has been a global leader in the development of approaches to establishing electronically-enabled community-based service delivery for remote and rural areas.

The first contribution under this theme is a note from the field: “A Community Informatics Model for e-Services in First Nations Communities: The K-Net Approach to Water Treatment in Northern Ontario”, by Michael Gurstein, Brian Beaton and Kevin Sherlock. The authors describe how K-Net and its parent tribal council, Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO), have developed and are implementing a highly innovative approach to the community delivery of water treatment service. This approach includes using videoconferencing for mentoring and continuing education, remote support, and ultimately remote monitoring and electronic service delivery.

These developments are components of the KO Water and Wastewater Plant Operator Training initiative and the Safe Water Operations Program. The contribution examines the KO approach to community-based ICT-enabled service delivery in light of on-going Community Informatics research and theory and KO’s experience with other areas of ICT-enabled community based service provision. The authors intend their contribution to begin a more general policy discussion on service delivery in First Nations communities and how the new opportunities presented by ICT can contribute to more efficient and effective services in communities.

This is followed by two contributions on telehealth services produced by K-Net affiliated researchers and program staff. Remote and rural First Nation communities have limited health services compared to urban communities yet their needs are similar and sometimes greater. Community members living in remote, isolated communities who require health services not provided by their community health centre usually have two choices: have no service or leave their community to access the service in a larger centre. Certain First Nation communities offer a third choice: health services delivered via videoconferencing or other means using broadband networks. See photo 5 below: Online e-health training session by videoconference.

Photo 5: Online e-health training session by videoconference.

The report: “Enabling and Accelerating First Nations Telehealth Development in Canada,” is by Valerie Gideon, Eugene Nicholas, John Rowlandson and Florence Woolner. The authors describe how telehealth is a primary tool for equalizing First Nations’ access to health services - particularly for remote First Nations. Their report surveys federal policy, reviews First Nations telehealth development documentation, and engages federal and provincial telehealth principals to determine the state of First Nations telehealth and telemedicine in Canada. It concludes that First Nations telehealth development is slower than anticipated, that national and regional policies are required to resolve cross-jurisdictional issues with provinces, and that federal health programs play a primary role as an enabler and accelerator of First Nations telehealth development in Canada.

The case study: “Managing changes in First Nations’ healthcare needs: is telehealth the answer?” by Josée Lavoie and Donna Williams – underscores the point that the health care needs of First Nations are changing. Chronic diseases now account for most hospital admissions, partially as a result of under-investment in primary health care. This situation results in an unnecessary reliance on secondary and tertiary care, resulting in a much higher cost to the provincial health care systems and human cost to First Nations peoples and communities. Telehealth is being promoted as a possible solution but this remains under-researched. While cost savings related to transportation have been documented, researchers have yet to tackle potential efficiencies across the federal and provincial health system divide.

The report outlines a project with K-Net’s sister organization, Keewaytinook Okimakanak Telemedicine (KOTM). It proposes a balanced scorecard approach, which seeks to translate the strategic objectives of an organization such as KOTM into a set of coherent performance measures. The balanced scorecard is intended to be a communication tool for First Nations organizations, government funders, clinicians and partner organizations.

Researchers often use theories to explain their research findings and put them into a wider context. Theoretical analyses can help to make research more broadly accessible to readers, who can use the theories to understand specific experiences previously unknown to them.

Photo 6: Dog team visits Keewaywin First Nation.

Our fourth theme – Theoretical contexts - includes two articles exploring theories popular in the communications and sociology fields that can help to explain K-Net.

The first article is: “Representation and Participation of First Nations Women in Online Videos,” by Sonja Perley. She discusses a range of theories - including the public sphere, feminist analysis and critical analysis – to explore the implications of online videos created for and by First Nations women. Using these theories, the author makes the case that with the rise in websites for video sharing (such as YouTube), and the increase in resources to create and upload videos, there is potential for First Nations women to make use of this technology to represent issues they cannot normally address through the mainstream media.

Her critical analysis provides some insight into how First Nations women are currently using ICTs to question and challenge mainstream media assumptions and representations of First Nations women. The article explores the potential of online videos produced by First Nations women to provide an alternate public sphere to represent themselves and their perspectives and promote social change. One of the videos analyzed in the study is the K-Net Story.

The second article: “Implementation of Information and Communication Technology in Aboriginal Communities: A Social Capital Perspective,” is by Javier Mignone and Heather Henley. The authors discuss social capital theory and use it to examine the implementation ICTs in Aboriginal communities.

Social capital, to the extent that it is a property of the social environment, takes the form of a relational resource. Many authors agree that social capital is a resource composed of a variety of elements, most notably social networks, social norms and values, trust, and shared resources. Using case descriptions from First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, the article analyzes from a social capital perspective the enabling and inhibiting conditions that seem to play a role in successful implementations of ICTs in Aboriginal communities. K-Net is one of the case studies in their analysis.

As mentioned earlier, K-Net is known in the community informatics world as a leader in First Nations / Indigenous telecommunications infrastructure and services. Our final theme is Links to K-Net’s wider research, policy and practice.

This report – “Online Resources” - is an annotated list of online resources about KO, K-Net and associated broadband applications. The first part of the resource is photo galleries and online videos. Of particular note are the videos produced under the umbrella: The K-Net Story ... Weaving the Networked Economy in Kuhkenah First Nation Communities. Anyone interested in learning in-depth about K-Net is well advised to view these videos to meet the people involved in K-Net and hear their voices describe in their own words how K-Net works with First Nation communities to develop and support broadband networks and ICT.

The next part of this online resource is publications. A remarkable aspect of the publications listed is that many were written and produced by Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) staff members. Included are references to papers from the APRC conference. Many KO staff members and their colleagues presented their work in Ottawa in March 2009 at the Aboriginal Policy Research Conference (APRC), hosted by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) and the University of Western Ontario. The APRC conference was a significant event with more than 1,000 delegates and multiple concurrent sessions. As a result of the high rate of participation by KO and colleagues, the APRC conference included four sessions devoted to technology-related research, and a new publication from INAC about Aboriginal Policy Research will include many of these papers. The forthcoming (2009) book will be used by KO and policy-makers as a reference document for coherent policy and program approaches toward broadband and ICT in First Nation communities.

Also included are references to publications from three authors who completed their PhD theses while working in partnership with K-Net: Adam Fiser, Ricardo Ramirez, and George Ferreira. Fiser, one of the co-editors of this special issue, is based at the University of Toronto. He has produced numerous works based on his analysis of the K-Net governance model. Ramirez, in addition to his PhD thesis at the University of Guelph, has worked on multiple community-based evaluations in northern communities with K-Net. Ferreira, also at the University of Guelph, worked in partnership with K-Net to develop a model for producing and using participatory video for policy change. Some of the videos based on his work are also in the videos listing in the resource.

A number of the publications listed are based on research from the VideoCom project (http://videocom.firstnation.ca) led by Susan O’Donnell at the National Research Council of Canada, also a co-editor of this special issue. VideoCom, a partnership with Keewaytinook Okimakanak and two other First Nations organizations, is investigating the use of video communications in remote and rural First Nations. Many graduate students working with VideoCom produced publications listed in the resource as well as several articles in this special issue.

Finally, other publications and resources, contains a range of concept papers, evaluation reports, presentations and links to related resources. One production in particular will be of interest to those who want to read how K-Net is having an impact on the people across the north. The “ICT Innovation and Personal Stories from the Little North … the land of the Ojibway, Oji-Cree and Cree people” is a collection of 50 ICT stories produced by Rick Garrick for bi-weekly publication in Wawatay News over a one year time period (Feb 2003 to Feb 2004) under the Kuhkenah Page (see http://knet.ca/documents/Kuhkenah-Wawatay-news-stories.pdf). Again, a remarkable feature is the number of resources created directly by KO staff members or in collaboration with KO to highlight many aspects of the K-Net story.

Photo 7: The Big Dish in Sioux Lookout during the launch in January 2005 (Carl Seibel, Minister Joe Comuzzi, Brian Beaton).

We hope this special issue devoted to Community Informatics and Indigenous Communities in Canada will not only introduce this topic to new readers but also continue an ongoing dialogue about how CI and CI research can contribute to and support the development of Indigenous communities everywhere. Meegwetch / Thank You.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441