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Commentary Here’s one way to improve Indigenous living standards: Break down the digital divide

Belinda Stronach is chairwoman and president of The Stronach Group, chairwoman of Acasta Capital, chair of The Belinda Stronach Foundation and a former federal cabinet minister and member of Parliament

When I founded One Laptop Per Child Canada in 2010, I was motivated by an idea of getting the transformative power of technology and education into the hands of Indigenous young people. Access to technology has been a challenge for too many communities across the country for too long.

We started with an ambitious goal of supplying 5,000 laptops customized for use by Indigenous children and preloaded with culturally relevant software designed by Indigenous educators. Since the successful pilot, OLPC has gone on to provide technology to more than 17,000 students in more than 70 communities in every province and territory.

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The organization's success has exceeded my wildest dreams and has helped to start breaking down the digital divide that Indigenous youth must bridge.

Read more: Indigenous babies in Quebec hospitalized at higher rates, study finds

I have continued to follow the evolution of OLPC's work with pride, even if from a distance now, and have been particularly impressed by one of OLPC's most recent collaborations with the Prince of Wales' Canadian charitable office (Prince's Charities Canada), First Nations University and the Government of Canada. This project aims to teach children basic coding and digital animation, with which they can create projects using Indigenous culture and language.

This OLPC project provided schools with next-generation laptops that are specially made for young learners in Grades 5 to 8. The students then worked with an instructor for a week of dedicated lessons (organized around school/community needs) to learn coding and digital animation. After mastering the basics, students created original projects that drew on the traditions of their rich cultures, using their own languages. Most of the schools involved invited community elders to offer and record their stories as part of the learning and creation process.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission included language revitalization as one of its calls to action because, over all, Indigenous languages across Canada are facing a decline. The legacy of residential schools played a key role in this current state of affairs. The mission to preserve and strengthen Indigenous languages requires urgent attention. When we lose an Indigenous language speaker, we lose an important part of Canadian history and society.

Language is a living thing. It is also a pillar of a nation's culture and is inextricably linked to its worldview. Grammar itself reflects values and spiritual beliefs. Many Western languages emphasize the speaker as an individual taking action toward the external world and being separate from it, while many Indigenous languages describe the speaker as being part of the external world, on whom action is taken in unity with the natural world. The perspective can be so different and that difference so valuable that all our peoples are enriched by ensuring that Indigenous languages, and the cultures they reflect, remain vibrant and resilient.

So, in honour of our country's sesquicentennial anniversary, I urge all Canadians to support the preservation of language by learning what Indigenous languages are spoken in and around your hometowns and across Canada. Free apps such as ATC Cree and Inuktitut Tusaalanga, along with websites such as firstvoices.com, offer great starting resources. This effort will strengthen the recognition of Indigenous culture and language and ensure that nothing further is lost. That would really be one of the best birthday presents for which a country could ask.

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