Broadband Bruce: Fighting Canada’s Digital Divide

A reformed troublemaker rigs up high-speed internet in his community to help turn around the indigenous reserve.

Maskwacis is an impoverished Canadian community grappling with addiction, unemployment and suicide.

Like many other indigenous reserves, it’s a place cut off from the world. There are no landlines, patchy mobile service and no affordable ways to get online. 

Bruce Buffalo is a local young man who grew up bouncing around foster homes and in and out of jail. Having turned his own life around, he wants to give the First Nations community something millions of other Canadians take for granted: the internet. 

Convinced that connectivity will open up new job and education opportunities, Bruce sets about building Maskwacis its own high-speed internet network. But with no backing, piling debt and huge technical obstacles, will Bruce succeed in bringing Maskwacis into the digital age?

Bruce Buffalo installs one of two antennae for the Maskwacis wifi zone on his sister's roof [Al Jazeera]
Bruce Buffalo installs one of two antennae for the Maskwacis wifi zone on his sister’s roof [Al Jazeera]


By San San F. Young

“Well yeah, but I do swear a lot,” Bruce quipped when, during the filming, I asked him how he managed to always keep smiling despite the many challenges that come with being First Nations in Canada

His response was typical of what I found in Bruce and the reserve of Maskwacis as a whole – weighed down by hundreds of years of prejudice against First Nations communities, they would often push forward with raw humour and determination. 

Every individual living on a reserve in Canada has been affected in some way by the legacy of “cultural genocide” against First Nations people. Since the 1870s, indigenous children were forcibly taken out of reserves and “re-educated” in so-called residential schools, designed to, as their slogan stated, “kill the Indian in the child”.

More recently, since the 1960s, indigenous children have been disproportionately taken into the foster care system in what is referred to as “scoops”.

The erosion of a traditional indigenous way of life in Canada has led to hugely inflated rates of addiction, familial breakdowns and suicide, alongside gang violence and a lack of opportunities. This is particularly evident within reserves, where the problems are exacerbated by isolation and extreme poverty. 

I was aware of these issues before starting to work on this film, but I hoped to somehow focus on forward-facing solutions. When I came across Bruce’s posts on Facebook, Twitter and Gofundme.com – where he had posted punky messages sent out by way of half-broken antennae – it was obvious that his wifi mission was a true grassroots effort to build something from nothing.

A sign put up by Bruce Buffalo alerting members of his community of the free wireless internet [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
A sign put up by Bruce Buffalo alerting members of his community of the free wireless internet [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

The road into Maskwacis sees first-world services give way to broken-down homes, exposed pipelines and dirt roads. Isolation is a very real concern if you live in a remote corner of a reserve, and don’t own a car or can’t afford gas money, as reserves are typically spread out and may offer a limited choice of services, shops and recreation.

Add to that worries over enduring racism, which further widens the divide between First Nations reserves and the rest of Canada, and it becomes even more essential that some bridge to the wider world is available. 

Tackling the “digital divide” can seem less urgent than putting food in mouths or building homes, but connectivity is an empowering and potent solution for marginalised communities.

Connecting communities can have a sizeable effect on complex issues like teenage suicide, mental health or cultural preservation. The internet allows for access to improved health services, cultural resources, higher education, a wider pool of jobs, and, for those who may feel isolated, a way to expand their social network. 

Maskwacis is full of individuals who are best placed to improve their own communities, but are denied the opportunity by failures in the basic infrastructure and reliable access to the internet. There is no reason why first-class education, health services and cutting-edge businesses could not thrive on reserves.

Bruce said: “You shouldn’t have to leave the reserve to have dreams.” Access to the internet can end the sense of isolation on reserves and empower problem-solvers from within these communities. When that is in place, unlikely heroes like Bruce will show what they can achieve.