Former Klahoose Chief James Delorme’s vision for building digitally literate, prosperous Indigenous communities

Former Elected Chief of the Klahoose First Nation & President of First Sky Media Group, James Delorme is at the forefront of technology that enables Indigenous communities. We spoke with James about how technology can allow Indigenous peoples to have control over their own sovereignty and authorship of their own stories.

FWD50: Can you tell me how you came to the realization that adoption of digital technology was key to the future of Indigenous communities?

James: It was through innovation, practical innovation in my community — in the Klahoose community — just to have the Internet. We’re talking about the early 90s. In the mid-90s we had dial-up and America Online was the great new thing for chatting. Then eventually the social media revolution started to happen. It was revolutionary for me. I saw the Internet as a way of not only communicating on a general level, but helping further our work in our Indigenous communities: to help us build capacity and communicate between nations.

I wanted to go up to the traditional territory of the Klahoose — a remote location. The only way to get there is by boat or by plane. Most of the Klahoose members are off-reserve. I really felt like Klahoose were missing out on that — not only missing out on seeing the territory, but also missing out on cultural practices involving connection to the land.

These are the stories of the ancestors — cultural components that are very important to the Klahoose people. My idea was to create software where you could take a virtual tour of the territory in a dugout canoe: paddle up to one of the traditional sites and get off the canoe and talk to an elder to learn not only the language, but the stories of the territory. Today, discussion of that idea in virtual reality is really quite prevalent. It warms my heart that my ideas back in the 90s are still something viable today.

FWD50: What is the first thing that Indigenous communities need right now to evolve to the next technological step?

That’s the crux of going forward. There are some problems that we have to address. Number one: connectivity. That, beyond any innovative ideas and great lofty plans, the one thing that we absolutely need and are lacking is connectivity. We have to improve connectivity, not only in Indigenous communities, but everywhere in Canada. We need to increase that level of service. That’s number one.

FWD50: Once we have that, what’s the second thing?

The second is building systems that work to maintain our sovereignty, to maintain our lifestyle: policy, education, and implementation of systems. When you start to build systems, you start to build work around policy, working out how communities are participating in the new economy… which I love very much. I’m a big gig economy guy. I really support being independent.

FWD50: You mentioned systems that support your sovereignty. What kind of systems would those be?

We need to find architecture that works within sovereign systems that already exist — for instance, traditional economies. Indigenous communities have traditional economies that have been going on for generations.

Here’s an example: the Klahoose people might trade a thousand sockeye salmon for a thousand cubic meters of western red cedar. They trade it with the Sechelt people, who are our neighbours. That kind of economy has been going on for generations. It still continues. How do we use modern technology within that structure to have something more modern? Blockchain might help with this.

We have to be savvy enough to understand how those traditional systems work in order to approach them from a technological angle. The real work here is the education piece, then trying to implement those systems in a way that works that does not continue colonisation.

FWD50: We can see how that would allow an autonomous economy to thrive without intervention from other sorts of providers or economies.

Exactly. Further to that: it’s with our information, our data sovereignty. The government takes our information — anything we do as a First Nation. They record all that information and it becomes part of their database. We never get to use any of that. It’s a one-way street.

It’s not often talked about, but government needs to open source that data. Storing our own data is really essential to our own sovereignty. That’s the crux of what the people who I work with are trying to figure out. We’re trying to find solutions to that problem, trying to keep that data sovereign.

FWD50: Are there other communities that are expressing their data sovereignty in ways that you can use as models?

Yes there are. Not many though. Not many at all. There is one in Nunavut; There are communities up there that are actually doing it. The one contact I have is Madeleine Redfern and Mike West. Those two are working on a project (Nuvujaq Society). They’re the only ones that I know of in Canada — they have their own data centre. They created a network to help with connectivity. They’re getting help from the government as well. Microsoft has seen this as a really groundbreaking project.

There are various tech companies that are non-Indigenous that are doing some work, but all the information is still going to California or the East and then back to Canada. There’s a real problem with that in terms of data sovereignty. Our information is going elsewhere.

FWD50: Is this part of a global movement? Are there Indigenous communities elsewhere in the world that are looking at their sovereignty in terms of technology?

Yes. It is a global issue, but it hasn’t reached that capacity of “we’re all working on this together”. That’s why it’s so interesting to work with FWD50. Now I get to see other people in the world who are also talking about open source and making sure that governments are accountable, and that our practices are accountable to the people. Really that’s the unifier: the fact that we’re all paddling together. We’re all in the same canoe, paddling toward a goal. The goal is to have open source, to be able to have clear connectivity and accountable governments.

Is there anything that you would like to add about the work that First Sky doing and how you’re moving these ideas forward?

I do feel a bit like I’m out there in the cold. I’m trying to find my way through the snowstorm. Finding best practices and the best way for my Indigenous communities to flourish.

My goal is to make sure that technology aligns with methodologies of teaching about Indigenous communities. Technology within reconciliation is absolutely essential. It’s essential for communication between Indigenous & non-Indigenous, which is really what stops us from having healthy communities. At the end of the day, that kind of recognition of partnership and being equal will help us flourish and help others in this country and globally.

At FWD50 James is leading a breakout session called Reconciliation through Innovation: Indigenous Data Sovereignty.