Impact of Information and Communication Technology on Social Capital in Aboriginal Communities in Canada

Article excerpt

Introduction

In Canada, the last several years have seen a significant growth in information and communication technology (ICT) opportunities, particularly in relation to online capabilities. A diverse number of Aboriginal communities have been part of this process. There are numerous experiences where the growth in ICT appears to be having an important impact on socioeconomic realities.

Scholars suggest that community ICT networks provide greater access to essential services such as education, training, and health care (Fawcett, Francisco, & Schultz, 2000) and may increase community capacity, ultimately strengthening communities (Telenor, 2004). Increased access to information is reported to improve a community's ability to interact with other organizations, such as governments, businesses, and other administrative units. These capabilities would enable more equitable participation in areas of community administration and governance (Daly, 2005). A U.S. study (Ruiz, 2004) found that broadband access is an important part of enhancing rural community development, improving the economy, health care, and general quality of life. Nonetheless, a case study on the social transformations induced by the high-speed Internet connectivity in a town of the province of New Brunswick, Canada, found very little evidence of transformation especially at the household level. While the study found many examples of new uses and activities as a result of broadband adoption, there were few examples of a change in behaviours, attitudes, relationships, and operating norms as a result (Selouani & Hamam, 2007).

In recent years, social capital (tentatively defined as the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of society's social interactions) has become one of the relevant notions for measuring the impacts of ICT in communities (O'Neil, 2002). Nonetheless, there is still much that is unknown about how ICT affects community life both positively and negatively. Simultaneously, what is known as the digital divide (Norris, 2003) is still far from being bridged. This study builds on prior work by the authors on Aboriginal social capital (Mignone, 2003a, 2003b; Mignone, Longclaws, O'Neil, & Mustard, 2004) and sought to address three questions: Can social capital be a useful notion in assessing the impact of ICT? How can ICT impact the community social capital? Does the type of ICT development matter in terms of social capital? The study questions were developed in response to interest in understanding how ICT development in Aboriginal communities in Canada can be assisted both from an implementation and impact perspective.

The article initially reviews the theory of social capital as it applies to Aboriginal peoples in Canada and presents the social capital framework that guides its examination in relation to ICT. It then presents a summary of case descriptions of ICT implementation in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, and one specifically related to urban settings. Using the case studies as main source of information, the article analyzes the potential impact of ICT on social capital applying the study's framework. When analyzing the potential for impact the article provides evidence of the plausibility of impact, not evidence of impact per se. The study design and the data available did not allow for the latter type of evidence. The section concludes by revisiting ICT and social capital. The final section of the article discusses policy and research priority issues.

Social Capital Framework

A common understanding amongst social scientists is that social capital is a relational resource composed of a variety of elements, most notably social networks, social norms, values, trust, and shared physical resources (Bourdieu, 1983; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992; Lin, 2001; Loury, 1992; Narayan, 1999; Putnam, 2000; Putnam, Leonardi, & Nanetti, 1993; Schuller, Baron, & Field, 2000; Woolcock, 1998a, 1998b; Woolcock & Narayan, 2000). …