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Lawrence Lewis is working to eliminate a legacy of stress over bureaucratic processes for First Nations communities in Canada.OneFeather

Distance is a challenge for about half of the customers served by OneFeather Mobile Technologies Ltd., a digital solutions company in Victoria, B.C.

But it’s all in the company’s mission: Founded in 2013, OneFeather aims to bring the internet to Indigenous communities across Canada, enabling remote access to services that would normally require an in-person trip to a post office, bank or government office.

In some of the places where these customers live, the internet connection is bad. In others it doesn’t exist at all, says Lawrence Lewis, member of the We Wai Kai Nation in B.C. and co-founder of OneFeather, whose services include facilitating online elections, voting and registry management services for Indigenous bands, digital banking and Indigenous status card renewal.

“In more isolated communities we will see connectivity issues – but oftentimes this is by design, not by accident,” he says, “because the community wants to maintain its cultural values.”

Even so, Mr. Lewis and his co-founder Matthew Lehner were steadfast when they launched OneFeather ten years ago. After three decades of working in Indigenous band administration and operation – and watching band members grapple with inconvenient processes and, at times, poor treatment by institutions – Mr. Lewis was convinced there was a real need for innovative technologies created specifically for Indigenous people.

With $1.5-million in seed funding at the start, OneFeather rolled out its first offering: digital voting that allows band members to cast their votes electronically on issues ranging from land use to reconciliation settlements.OneFeather

For instance, instead of having to renew their Indigenous status by mail or by visiting a federal Indian Affairs office – which can be traumatic for some, Mr. Lewis says – what if community members could just submit their renewal through an online portal that would also screen the submission to ensure it’s filled out correctly?

Or, instead of worrying about how they might be treated if they go to a bank, what if they could take care of their finances online through an Indigenous-owned platform where they could feel a sense of community?

“We wanted to re-imagine these spaces from an Indigenous perspective and replace procedures or processes which, either by accident or design, continue to isolate or marginalize,” Mr. Lewis said. “So, we asked: how can we build technologies that build our people up?”

With $1.5-million in seed funding at the start, OneFeather rolled out its first offering: digital voting that allows band members to cast their votes electronically on issues ranging from land use to reconciliation settlements.

The technology was met with “resistance and skepticism, largely due to this being new and transformative – folks were naturally unsure,” Mr. Lewis recalls. But a band he was employed with at the time, the Malahat Nation on Vancouver Island, listened to his pitch and signed up as the first OneFeather customer in January 2015.

And the solution really took off during the pandemic, Mr. Lewis says.

“COVID helped things shift to digital,” he says. “Voting results tell us that electronic ballots outperform other modes, like by mail or in-person. The use of digital voting has also increased engagement … [so], more people are also voting.”

Today, OneFeather works with more than 250 Indigenous bands representing about 400,000 members – about 40 per cent of the country’s bands and 30 per cent of all Indigenous people in Canada. The business has grown its revenue 100 per cent from last year, Mr. Lewis says, and now has 26 employees.

More than 50,000 digital votes have been cast through OneFeather, making it the country’s leading provider of online election and voting services, Mr. Lewis says. The company has also processed over 22,000 status card applications and boasts a 98 per cent success rate.

But getting there hasn’t been easy, or linear. Allowing bands and members to embrace OneFeather’s services has been a long and sometimes challenging process. He’s relied upon referrals by customers – or what he calls “moccasin telegraph” – to spread the word about OneFeather. But most of his company’s growth has intentionally been organic.

Lawrence Lewis says offering Indigenous communities a service from a business that understands their historical context and day-to-day realities is 'monumental.'

“Building trust is critical, which is why a lot of our growth has been the result of word-of-mouth,” says Mr. Lewis. “We rely on existing relationships to introduce the next relationship, so we’ve been very intentional in making sure every client we work with is happy and feel that we’ve done something to add value.”

In addition to giving their members access to online services, bands that work with OneFeather have the ability to manage their own membership registry, instead of relying on the federal government.

That’s powerful stuff, given the growing importance of data access and ownership, Mr. Lewis says.

“Nations are at the beginning of understanding data uses,” he says. “We’re looking to unlock all transaction points that cause pain for Indigenous people, and to do that we need to have a better understanding of user behaviour.”

He’s already started taking this approach with his own clientele: Mr. Lewis has pinpointed segments of OneFeather’s target customership that are most and least resistant to the platform. In the former camp are band members between 48 and 58 (“They don’t trust technology,” Mr. Lewis says. “They don’t like it and they don’t believe it will work.”) In the latter camp are younger and older band members, 18 to 38 – the fastest growing demographic group in the country’s Indigenous population – and 59 and older.

“These users are online already, using platforms like Facebook, and are willing to read our instructional material and watch our demo videos.”

Amid recent growth, OneFeather continues to add to its services and features. It recently created a rewards program that allows banking customers to redeem points toward OneFeather services, and is building a marketplace of vendors that will accept those points.

The company is also working on new ways to address the needs of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Mr. Lewis says. One particular challenge on OneFeather’s radar is the refund process for sales tax exemptions, which federal and provincial governments extend to Indigenous people under certain conditions.

“Right now the only way to access this is by going through an antiquated application process where you have to self-declare your Indigenous status, gather your receipts, have your band sign off on the application and submit it to CRA (Canada Revenue Agency),” Mr. Lewis says. “We’re dreaming up solutions where, at the point of sale, you can benefit from that exemption.”

For Indigenous people, having access to services provided by a business that understands the relevant cultural, historical and systemic context can be a “monumental, life-altering reality,” Mr. Lewis says.

“We’re at this crossroads right now where technology and the Indigenous way of doing business and building community intersect,” he says. “How can we open up pathways for Indigenous people to improve their lives, build wealth and shift the playing field? That’s what we continue to work on.”