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Have your say: How can we help Canadians gain better access to the Internet?

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

Brad, an unemployed heavy-machine operator, saw the big, blue "@" sign in the window of the New Glasgow Public Library in northern Nova Scotia, and he felt a twinge of hope. They had Internet.

He had to upgrade his engineering certification for a job, but the closest college class was a three-hour return drive away. He heard he could take the course online, but he couldn't afford a home computer or Internet connection after paying rent, food and heat. And even if he could, he probably wouldn't have known how to figure it out on the computer.

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Brad is just one face of Canada's "digital divide"– the disparity in computer access and skills that puts low-income individuals, students, families, seniors and new immigrants at a distinct disadvantage in an increasingly online world.

Statistics Canada reported this month that only 62 per cent of the poorest quarter of Canadian households are connected to the Internet at home, compared to 95 per cent of the wealthiest quarter. There is also a gap in "digital literacy"– poorer, older and newer Canadians often lack the skills and know-how needed to effectively navigate the Internet and take advantage of all it has to offer.

Brad was fortunate. The "@" marked the library as a participant in the Nova Scotia Community Access Program. A trained instructor showed him how to use the online course software, and Brad (not his real name, in part because of the stigma attached to needing this kind of help) is completing his certification upgrade on a connected library computer each week.

But not every community has an access program, and as more and more daily needs and services go online and in-person contact declines, vulnerable Canadians risk falling even further behind.

This week's question: How can we help under-connected Canadians gain better access and skills to maximize the benefit of the Internet?

THE EXPERTS

Eric Stackhouse, chair of Nova Scotia Community Access Program "Borrow the motto 'No one left behind.' In addition to public access, we need freely available, one-on-one assistance and small group training through government-funded community technology sites, like public libraries. The result will be a "learning citizenry" capable of adaptation to rapid change."

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Mark Goldberg, telecommunications consultant in Thornhill, Ont.

"School computers and library access aren't enough – too many low-income households don't even have computers. While the private sector is stepping in with innovative solutions like refurbished computers and low-cost Internet plans, there's room for governments and community groups to help by determining which households should be targeted for these programs."

Jill Schnarr, vice-president of community affairs at Telus

"We must bridge the digital divide across geography and economic means to help families in need and build stronger, more vibrant communities. Through partnerships between governments and industry, we can harness our shared expertise and resources to enable connectivity for all."

Anabel Quan-Haase, associate professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario "Start early with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curricula, emphasizing digital skills, literacy and exploration in elementary and high schools across the board."

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