Investigations in Community Informatics

Edited by | Andrew Clement | Michael Gurstein
Graham Longford
| Marita Moll | Leslie Regan Shade


Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Connecting Canadians : investigations in community informatics /
edited by Andrew Clement … [et al.].

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities.


Assistance provided by the Government of Alberta, Alberta Multimedia Development Fund.


Please contact AU Press, Athabasca University at for permissions and copyright information.


List of Illustrations


1 Connecting Canadians? Community Informatics Perspectives on Community Networking Initiatives

| Graham Longford, Andrew Clement, Michael Gurstein, Leslie Regan Shade

PART I Context

2 Toward a Conceptual Framework for a Community Informatics

| Michael Gurstein

3 Keeping in Touch A Snapshot of Canadian Community Networks and Their Users—Report on the CRACIN Survey of Community Network Users

| Marita Moll, Melissa Fritz

4 Canadian and US Broadband Policies A Comparative Analysis

| Heather E. Hudson

PART II Conceptual Frameworks

5 Information Technology as Political Catalyst From Technological Innovation to the Promotion of Social Change

| Serge Proulx

6 “The Researcher Is a Girl” Tales of Bringing Feminist Labour Perspectives into Community Informatics Practice and Evaluation

| Katrina Peddle, Alison Powell, Leslie Regan Shade

7 What Are Community Networks an Example Of? A Response

| Christian Sandvig

PART III Community Innovation I: Participation and Inclusion

8 Systems Development in a Community-Based Organization Lessons from the St. Christopher House Community Learning Network

| Susan MacDonald, Andrew Clement

9 Vancouver Community Network as a Site of Digital and Social Inclusion

| Diane Dechief

PART IV Community Innovation II: Wireless Networking

10 Community and Municipal Wi-Fi Initiatives in Canada Evolutions in Community Participation

| Alison Powell, Leslie Regan Shade

11 Wi-Fi Publics Defining Community and Technology at Montréal’s Île Sans Fil

| Alison Powell

12 Wireless Broadband from Individual Backhaul to Community Service Co-operative Provision and Related Models of Local Signal Access

| Matthew Wong

PART V Rural and Remote Broadband

13 “We Were on the Outside Looking In”—A First Nations Online Social Environment in Northern Ontario

| Brandi L. Bell, Philipp Budka, Adam Fiser

14 A Historical Account of the Kuh-ke-nah Network Broadband Deployment in a Remote Canadian Aboriginal Telecommunications Context

| Adam Fiser, Andrew Clement

15 Atlantic Canadian Community Informatics The Case of the WVDA and SmartLabrador

| Katrina Peddle

16 Reverse English Strategies of the Keewatin Career Development Corporation in Discourse Surrounding the Knowledge-Based Economy and Society

| Frank Winter

PART VI Libraries and Community Networks

17 Community Networks and Local Libraries Strengthening Ties with Communities

| Nadia Caidi, Susan MacDonald, Elise Chien

18 The Library Ideal and the Community Network Prospects for New Technologies in the Public Library

| Marco Adria

PART VII Public Policy

19 Community Networking Experiences with Government Funding Programs Service Delivery Model or Sustainable Social Innovation?

| Susan MacDonald, Graham Longford, Andrew Clement

20 Communautique Action and Advocacy for Universal Digital Access

| Nicolas Lecomte, Serge Proulx

21 There and Back to the Future Again Community Networks and Telecom Policy Reform in Canada, 1995–2010

| Graham Longford, Marita Moll, Leslie Regan Shade

Appendix A Community Partners and Case Study Sites

| Graham Longford

Appendix B A Brief History of the Community Access Program: From Community Economic Development to Social Cohesion to Digital Divide

| Marita Moll

Appendix C The Federal Connecting Canadians Initiative, 1995–2007: A Brief Overview

| Graham Longford, Marita Moll


Publication Credits

List of Contributors



3.1 Computer and internet activities: Frequency of use

3.2 Relative importance of community network sites for information needs

3.3 Role of staff and volunteers in effective use of community network resources

4.1 Universal broadband speed goals for selected countries

10.1 Municipal and community wireless networking projects

16.1 Principles articulated in Aboriginal discourse

17.1 Similarities between libraries and community networks

17.2 Divergences between libraries and community networks

18.1 Respondents by professional/community role and community

19.1 Federal programs in support of community networking, 1995–2007

19.2 CRACIN case study sites and federal funding received

21.1 TPRP submissions Round One (15 August 2005) and Round Two (15 September 2005)


1.1 CRACIN case study site map

3.1 Weekly use of community network sites by activity

3.2 Frequency of searches for community information

3.3 Use of community network sites to address specific personal needs and goals

3.4 Assistance provided by community network staff and volunteers

3.5 Use of community network sites to participate in online discussions

3.6 Use of community network sites to post information online

8.1 St. Chris House: Flipchart from the ASE needs assessment exercise

8.2 St. Chris House: Participants in the ASE needs assessment exercise

14.1 Map of Keewaytinook Okimakanak First Nations in Northwestern Ontario

14.2 Two K-Net Services staff members playfully demonstrate the inadequacy of public telephone infrastructure in KO First Nations, circa 2000.

16.1 Northern Administration District, Saskatchewan

16.2 The federal discourse of the KBES: 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2005.

18.1 Impact of technology adoption on library practices


This book represents the culmination of many years of work conducted under the auspices of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN). Any major long-term research project inevitably accumulates a long list of debts of gratitude to those who have contributed to the endeavour, often in unseen ways. The fact that CRACIN is a research alliance means that the list is not only long but unusually broad in terms of the institutional affiliations of the many key players. We can’t thank by name every individual to whom we’re grateful, but let’s begin.

As with most research projects, much of the hard work was put in by graduate students. In this case, we had the pleasure of working with many fine young scholars in the making, spread across five universities: Brandi Bell, Chris Bodnar, Elise Chien, Stéphane Couture, Diane Dechief, Adam Fiser, Mel Hogan, Nicholas Lecomte, Robert Luke, Susan MacDonald, Ryan MacNeil, Rachel Miles, Catherine Parrish, Katrina Peddle, Alison Powell, Oriane Regus, Paula Romanow, John Stevenson, Craig Stewart, Ken Werbin, Frank Winter, and Matt Wong. We are also grateful to our research collaborators, Marco Adria, Nadia Caidi, Arthur Cordell, and Serge Proulx, for leading subprojects and supervising several of these graduate students.

We were fortunate to have as our official advisors Mark Surman and Heather Hudson, who generously made time in their busy schedules to share their extensive experience. We also appreciated the feedback given by other community informatics experts along the way: Anne Bishop, Jack Carroll, Peter Day, Bruce Dienes, Bill Dutton, Maurita Holland, Bill McIver, Susan O’Donnell, Ken Pigg, Christian Sandvig, Richard Smith, Sharon Strover, and Wal Taylor.

A novel, and vital, aspect of this project was the key role that community networking initiatives and their leaders played. We had the privilege of collaborating with extraordinarily committed and talented community innovators across Canada, who opened doors and gave liberally of their time. From west to east they were: Steve Chan and Peter Royce (Vancouver Community Network); Lucy Pana (The Alberta Library); Brian Beaton and Brian Walmark (K-Net); Rick Egan, Maureen Fair, Susan Piggott, and Randall Terada (St. Christopher House); Damien Fox and Steve Wilton (Wireless Nomad); Sandra Huntley (Sm@rtSites Ottawa); Michael Lenczner (Île Sans Fil), Monique Chartrand and Ariane Pelletier (Communautique), Janet Larkman (Western Valley Development Agency); and Sheila Downer (SmartLabrador).

Complementing the academic and community legs of the research project was our long-term relationship with the federal government departments most actively involved in the Connecting Canadians agenda. What made this relationship work was the openness and dedication of public officials who belied the stereotype of the uncaring faceless bureaucrat: Prabir Neogi (Industry Canada); Maureen Doody and Natalie Frank (Canadian Heritage); Rob Mastin and Michael Williamson (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada); and Heather Clemenson (Agriculture Canada). Prabir, in particular, saw the CRACIN project through from beginning to end, offering sage counsel and keen insights at every step along the way.

Keeping the research records straight, juggling expenses, maintaining the project website, organizing events, and quietly seeing to a myriad of other details were a succession of conscientious graduate students who took their turn as CRACIN coordinator: Diane Dechief, Christie Hurrell, Stephanie Hall, Susan MacDonald, and Alison Powell. They were succeeded by two more graduate students who worked as editorial assistants: Nicole Desaulnier and Yannet Lathrop. The administrative staff in the (then) Faculty of Information Studies were also invaluable in managing this large and sprawling project. We are especially grateful to Kathy Shyjak, whose rare but much appreciated combination of patience, attention to detail, extensive knowledge of financial arcania, and savvy sense of the doable saved us from imminent death by accounting entanglement on more than one occasion.

This project was primarily funded by an Initiative for the New Economy grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Our principal contact at SSHRC, Gordana Krcevinac, was a pleasure to work with. Three federal government departments also contributed financially, mainly for workshops: Canadian Heritage, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and Industry Canada.

The final stage of the project was to produce the volume you are now reading. In this we were very fortunate to find the Athabasca University Press, with its open access policy and its highly professional, able, and personable staff. Walter Hildebrandt offered vital encouragement and guidance at key moments in the process. Pamela MacFarland Holway cheerfully went above and beyond in providing detailed editorial correction and advice. Three anonymous reviewers contributed bracing but invaluable comments and critiques.


Community Informatics Perspectives on Community Networking Initiatives

Graham Longford, Andrew Clement, Michael Gurstein, Leslie Regan Shade

This volume of essays addresses the question of how citizens and communities in Canada are responding to the opportunities as well as the challenges presented by rapid technological change, particularly in the areas of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Since the 1990s, many commentators have extolled the virtues of the information or knowledge-based society that has emerged in recent decades and of the technological developments—microcomputing, data-processing, software, the Internet, and so on—underpinning it (Drucker 1994; Negroponte 1995; Tapscott 1997). Corporations, entrepreneurs, and governments have embraced these technologies in their pursuit of growth, innovation, efficiency, and global competitiveness, a process typified by the US retailer Wal-Mart’s highly successful use of ICTs to rationalize and streamline its operations (Gurstein 2007; see also chapter 2 in this volume). In addition, citizens, consumers, and skilled workers have taken advantage of ICTs to enhance their own knowledge, skills, and communicative capacities, in the process developing new, more mobile, flexible, and collaborative patterns of work, consumption, learning, and communication (Jenkins 2006; Mitchell 2000; Tapscott 2008; Urry 2007).

The transition to the information age is, however, fraught with risk, for individuals, firms, communities, and entire regions of the globe. Globalization and rapid technological change pose enormous challenges, including wrenching economic restructuring and dislocation, growing imbalances of wealth and power, and the marginalization and exclusion of whole regions and populations that lack the infrastructure, resources, knowledge, and skills needed to participate and thrive in the information society. Manuel Castells, among others, calls attention to the threat of economic and social exclusion posed by the “digital divide,” that is, the inability of certain regions, communities, and populations to connect to and insert themselves within the vital networks of investment, production, consumption, education, and governance that serve as the central nervous system of contemporary global society (Castells 1998, 1999).

While Castells’s work focuses on the risks of marginalization and exclusion facing large parts of the developing world that find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide—the so-called “black holes” of the network society (see Castells 1998, chap. 2)—similar risks exist within developed countries as well, differing only in degree. In Canada, for example, recent studies and reports have found that a significant number of citizens and communities remain without access to broadband Internet infrastructure or supports and services, this despite the fact that the country began the millennium as a global leader in broadband availability (National Broadband Task Force 2001; National Selection Committee 2004; Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2006; Howard, Busch, and Sheets 2010). Rural and remote regions of Canada, as well as marginalized communities and populations (such as Aboriginal Canadians and the urban poor), are in danger of being excluded as new, technology-enhanced economic, social, and educational opportunities pass them by. Recognizing the potential economic and social benefits of universal connectivity, many developed countries have over the past decade implemented national Internet and, more recently, broadband access strategies, including Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, and South Korea, to name a few. Many countries, including Estonia and Finland, have also proclaimed broadband connectivity to be a basic human right.1

However, as this book demonstrates, many communities at risk of being excluded from the information society are far from passive spectators to socio-technical transformation and are unwilling to leave their fate either to market forces or to government largesse. Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics focuses on the active role that citizens, civic organizations, and communities can play in overcoming digital divides and connecting to the network society on their own terms, in ways designed to promote local economic and social development, community learning and innovation, civic participation, and social cohesion. This book reflects on and documents some of the findings of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN), a research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) from 2003 to 2007. (Details of this partnership are presented below.) As this book highlights, and notwithstanding the risks outlined above, increasingly well-organized and self-conscious grassroots technology movements, or community networks (CNs), have emerged over the past couple of decades in North and South America, Europe, and Asia to work on behalf of and with communities to mitigate some of the dangers of economic and social exclusion accompanying the emergence of the network society.

The essays in this volume document how specific civil society groups are engaged in diverse socio-technical projects designed to enable local communities to develop on their own terms within the broader context of global economic, social, and technological transformation (see Schuler and Day 2004). This is accomplished through various “community informatics,” or community-based ICT initiatives,2 ranging from neighbourhood technology centres and public Internet access sites to community web portals, e-learning applications, and community-owned broadband and wireless networks. In Northwestern Ontario, for example, the Aboriginal-owned and -controlled Kuh-ke-nah Network, or K-Net, operates a terrestrial and satellite broadband network that, among other things, supports distance learning and Telehealth applications, thus enabling the members of their participating remote communities to receive educational and health services online. Along with other goals, these services are designed to stanch ongoing outflows of youth, the elderly, and their families who, until recently, were compelled to travel great distances to receive such services, at a heavy cost to the social integrity of their local communities.

Community networks in Vancouver and Toronto, meanwhile, recruit volunteers from among skilled new immigrants to conduct computer and Internet training workshops and to develop community web portals populated with information relevant to other new migrants, including settlement, employment, health, and legal information, while at the same time allowing new migrants to gain necessary Canadian work experience. As well, in downtown Montréal, Île Sans Fil, an all-volunteer group of “hacktivists,” students, and artists operates a network of some 150 Wi-Fi Internet “hotspots,” providing free Internet access to more than 50,000 users.

Such initiatives are not conducted in a vacuum, as we shall see. Important ingredients to the success of community informatics initiatives include community support and engagement; fruitful partnerships with local non-profit and community organizations, the private, and public sectors; well-designed and adequately funded government programs; and a broader public policy environment that is supportive of the goals of universal access and community-based technology development.

This book will be of interest to multiple audiences. It will appeal to the academic community, in furthering empirical community informatics studies and in detailing Canadian public policy initiatives designed to ameliorate the digital divide. It will also be of interest to the practitioner community, especially in its documentation of successes in empowering community members through ICTs as well as its analysis of how communities fostered technological innovation while dealing with difficulties engendered by the politics of both community and federal funding strictures.


Broadly speaking, as both a practice and an academic discipline, community informatics (CI) refers to the use of information and communication technologies to enable communities to reach their social, economic, cultural, and political goals (Gurstein 2007). Applications of CI include such activities and services as community Internet access provision, community information sharing, local online content development, online civic participation, online community service delivery, community economic development and e-commerce support, formal and informal learning networks, ICT training, and telework support.

Exemplifying the operational approach to CI is community networking, which historically has played a central role in the development of CI initiatives on the ground. Schuler (2000) defines community networks as enabling electronic environments that promote citizen participation in community affairs. Gurstein (2004, 231) describes a community network as “a locally-based, locally-driven communication and information system” designed to enable “community processes and [to achieve] community objectives.”

Community networks began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, initially as experiments in the use of computers and other networked digital technologies to support local communities. These included both grassroots efforts, such as the Community Memory project (Kubicek and Wagner 2002) and the online community The Well (Rheingold 2000) in California, and large-scale government initiatives to develop public information systems, such as France’s Minitel (Feenberg 1995) and Canada’s Telidon projects (Clement 1981). CNS often take the form of community-based ICT-enabled organizations supporting universal access to the Internet and the use of ICT systems to promote local economic and social development, civic participation, social inclusion, and community learning.

Ranging from basic public computing and Internet access sites to full-service community technology centres and interactive web-based community information systems, CNS share in common the broad ideals of promoting economic and social participation by using ICTs to enhance the communication and informational resources available to people living in cities, towns, and specific neighbourhoods, as well as in rural and remote communities (Gurstein 2007; Keeble and Loader 2001b). Best practices in community networking treat community members as active designers of their network and as producers of local content, while at the same time striving, through training and other forms of support, to transform community members into skilled agents in the use of ICTs so that they can pursue individual and collective goals (Gurstein 2004; Pinkett 2003; Ramírez et. al. 2002).

Among the thousands of community networking projects initiated worldwide, some of the better known, most thoroughly documented, and successful examples include the Digital City Amsterdam (De Digitale Stad) (Lovink 2004), the Seattle Community Network (Silver 2004), Blacksburg Electronic Village, in Virginia (Kavanaugh and Patterson 2002), the Milan Community Network (Rete Civica di Milano) (De Cindio 2004), and the Public Electronic Network (PEN) of Santa Monica, California (Dutton and Guthrie 1991). A rich CI literature has begun to emerge, covering a broad range of issues and focusing on the benefits of these and other CNS in North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australia (Gurstein 2000; Keeble and Loader 2001a; Marshall, Taylor, and Yu 2004; McIver 2003; Schuler and Day 2004).

Alongside studies of CN practices, scholarship interrogating the implications of the Internet for community formation, identity, and social cohesion is voluminous. Indeed, the last decade of the twentieth century was rife with utopian and dystopian prognostications on the nature of virtual communities and debates over the problematic nature of the increasing incursion of commercial models onto public platforms (Shade 1998). Today, so-called Internet Community Studies is well entrenched in interdisciplinary scholarship, as is evident in the proclivity of researchers studying both the micro and macro dynamics wrought by the inherently collaborative nature of the Internet for individual empowerment and collective mobilization (Burnett, Consalvo, and Ess 2010; Wellman 2004). As Cavanagh (2009) also argues, Internet Community Studies has generated much methodological innovation, while lively debates on the politics of community within networks has opened up space for fresh interrogations of ongoing themes in community research, among other areas.


While the origins of CI in Canada can be traced back to a number of experiments in community networking in the early 1970s (Clement 1981), dramatic growth took place in the early 1990s as personal computers and modems became increasingly affordable. The early use of computer networking as a tool for social action and mobilization across constituent groups was recognized by women’s groups (Balka 1992) and by the labour movement (Mazepa 1997). While the development of commercial residential networking and Internet service was slow to take off, early adopters and technology enthusiasts formed grassroots CNS to provide dial-up Internet access and local information services (Shade 1999). One of the first and, initially, most successful CNS in Canada was Ottawa’s National Capital FreeNet (NCF), established in 1992 as a community-based, non-profit co-operative project by a group of enthusiastic volunteers, university professors, and private industry donors. In addition to providing free dial-up Internet access, NCF offered access to information posted by over 250 community organizations and government agencies and hosted listservs for dozens of specialized interest groups (Shade 1999; Weston 1997).

Modelled on this and other successful initiatives, dozens of other CNS were established in communities across Canada in the early 1990s. The first international conference on community networking was held at Ottawa’s Carleton University in August 1993, bringing together a range of community activists, policy makers, and early “free-net” entrepreneurs to discuss the technical, social, and policy aspects of this nascent movement. This was followed by a second conference in August 1994 that established Telecommunities Canada, an umbrella group for all CNS in Canada.3 Occurring during the early “information highway” policy debates that coalesced under the federal Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), the conference also brought together federal government policy makers, while generating a space for public interest activists to meet and organize.

The specific use of community-based ICTs as a basis for local and regional economic development was pioneered by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) / SSHRC Research Chair in the Management of Technological Change at the University College of Cape Breton (UCCB), which in turn provided the support for the Centre for Community and Enterprise Networking at UCCB. The research and other outputs of the chair and the centre contributed significantly to an understanding of the link between community ICTs, community innovation, and local economic development, on regional, national, and global scales (Graham 2005; Gurstein 1999, 2002).

By the mid-1990s, thirty-five CNS were flourishing across the country, located in major cities as well as a number of regional centres and smaller communities and serving as many as a half million users (Shade 1999). Early CNS took a variety of organizational forms but typically comprised a few paid staff members, a voluntary board of directors, and a larger group of volunteers responsible for activities such as training, technical support, fundraising, and content development. In addition, early CNS in Canada were often affiliated with public institutions such as universities and public libraries (see chapter 17), as well as with non-profit community organizations such as social service agencies. Funding and other forms of material support have typically been provided through a pastiche of membership fees, government programs, cash and in-kind donations, volunteer labour, and equipment donations from corporate benefactors (Moll and Shade 2001; Rideout and Reddick 2005). Typical services offered by these networks included free or low-cost dial-up Internet access, email accounts, bulletin boards and listservs, access to public computer terminals, ICT training sessions, content development, and, eventually, web hosting and online training and discussion forums.

While novel in terms of the adoption and use of networked computing technologies for community development and engagement, the emergence of CNS in Canada can be considered within a broader tradition of using communication technologies for community development, including Canada’s early leading role in the development of community-based media initiatives. While community media initiatives often are subsumed under the rubric of “alternative,” “activist,” or “independent” media (Skinner 2010), all with interrelated and sympathetic concerns for the use of non-corporate media for social change, one imperative of community media is their abiding concern with access to and participation in the means of communication for citizens (Rennie 2006). Beginning in the early 1940s, for example, adult educators, farmers’ groups, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) collaborated to create the Farm Radio Forum, a series of moderated, face-to-face discussion groups composed of rural Canadians who would meet to discuss important social and economic issues of the day, the proceedings of which were then broadcast across the country over the CBC radio network (Sim 1964). Perhaps the most widely known community media project, however, emanated from the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada’s Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle program. The program was launched in 1967 by the federal government, with the explicit goal of using documentary film to address the issue of increasing poverty in Canadian communities. According to Waugh, Baker, and Winton (2010, 4), Challenge for Change brought together an unlikely partnership of “government bureaucrats, documentary filmmakers, community activists and ‘ordinary’ citizens.” The objective was “to engender social change through media, and aspiring filmmakers of the New Left rose to the challenge…. Filmmakers working with citizens would take on many issues, from women’s rights to housing to First Nations struggles to agriculture.” The production and dissemination of 145 films and videos over fourteen years resulted from an evolving research process in which filmmakers went into the communities themselves to develop media in a form of participatory action research. Dubbed the “Fogo Island” process, this involved an iterative approach wherein a filmmaker worked with a community development officer to identify a low-income community, who in turn worked with community members in order to identify grassroots solutions to their local problems. During the production process, emphasis was given to involving community members in the final editing decisions. Another integral part of the process was the playback of the film to the community, with government participation, so as to encourage conversation and problem solving (Wiesner 2010).

Television is another communications technology that Canadians made pioneering use of in the field of community development, through the creation of community cable television stations during the 1970s. Community television in Canada was unique in that its inception and growth was mandated by a funding obligation imposed upon cable companies in 1975 as a condition of their licensing by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). As community television activist Kim Goldberg (1990) documented, however, despite the popularity and use of local community stations for community action and social change, government responses in the 1980s toward maintaining community television were tepid at best, influenced by the advent of nationwide cable companies. With enthusiasm for the use of traditional communications media and technology for social change waning in the 1980s, activists and community development practitioners began to turn to newer communication technologies to foster social change, including networked computers, thanks to their increasing affordability.

In the mid-1990s, community networking received a significant boost in support through the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative, a suite of programs designed to make Canada a global leader in Internet connectivity. A steady stream of progressively more elaborate programs such as SchoolNet, the Community Access Program (CAP), and the Smart Communities pilot program had the broad objective of providing primarily technical Internet access from locations such as community centres, public libraries, and schools. Other federal programs made available either through or in conjunction with the Connecting Canadians agenda pursued related goals, such as rural broadband connectivity, online training and education, and the development of Canadian online content. (For a brief overview of the Connecting Canadians initiative, see Appendix C.) Altogether, more than $900 million has been spent through these programs in support of over 10,000 community-based ICT initiatives (see chapter 19).

A number of community networking organizations were significant recipients of funding under the Connecting Canadians initiative and became lynchpins in the development and success of many projects. CNS were natural partners for community organizations such as libraries and community centres seeking to establish public Internet access sites under the CAP program, and, today, community networks manage hundreds of such sites across the country. Community networks also played a leading role in a number of federally funded Smart Communities demonstration projects, such as the Western Valley Development Agency (Nova Scotia) and the aforementioned K-Net (Northwestern Ontario), which resulted in the deployment of broadband infrastructure and applications in a number of rural and remote communities throughout Canada. In addition, CNS have been highly active in providing computer training, technical support, and content development for many CAP sites, as well as at community centres, libraries, and schools, particularly in rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities across the country (Moll and Shade 2001).

Well-known Canadian examples of successful community networks include, among others, the National Capital FreeNet (Ottawa), the Vancouver Community Network, the Chebucto Community Network (Halifax), Communautique (Montréal), the Victoria FreeNet, and the Aboriginal-owned K-Net. Working in partnership with these and other community organizations, along with the private sector and other levels of government, the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative succeeded in placing Canada as an early leader among those nations pursuing the goal of universal access to the Internet, the deployment of ubiquitous broadband connectivity for their citizens, and the design and development of citizen-oriented ICT-enabled services.

By the late 1990s, Canada was consistently among the top five countries in the world for Internet penetration, and the Connecting Canadians strategy was marketed as a template for bridging the digital divide in other countries, particularly in the developing world. During the early 2000s, meanwhile, a handful of researchers and practitioners endeavoured to document the achievements and benefits of and the challenges facing publicly supported CI initiatives in Canada. Work by Gurstein (1999, 2002, 2004), Moll and Shade (2001), Ramírez et al. (2002), and Rideout and Reddick (2005) highlights the many contributions of these initiatives to local civic participation, social inclusion, information sharing, community learning, local and regional economic development, and human and social capital development.

For all its success, however, the CI sector in Canada stands at a crossroads as of this writing. With household Internet access rates approaching 75 percent and commercial broadband availability covering over 90 percent of the country (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2006), the relevance and necessity of publicly funded, community-based technology initiatives have been called into question, jeopardizing the long-term sustainability and survival of CI organizations across the country. As several chapters (see, especially, chapters 3 and 21) as well as Appendix B in this book document, in 2004 the federal government announced major budget cuts and program closures affecting CI initiatives. This heralded a significant withdrawal of federal support for the sector over the next few years, despite a number of studies pointing to the continuing necessity of public funding for the sustainability of CI initiatives and the need for government support to ensure equitable access (and use) of the Internet by marginalized populations throughout Canada, particularly those in remote and rural regions, Aboriginal peoples, the elderly, and recent immigrants (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2004; Rideout and Reddick 2005).

Waning government interest in the sector has placed thousands of community-based ICT initiatives across Canada in jeopardy and threatens to undermine the significant progress recently made in closing the digital divide and enabling individuals and communities to access the benefits of new ICTs. This atmosphere of increasingly tenuous funding and public policy gave rise to the research presented in this volume.


The Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN) was established in 2003 as a research partnership between academics, practitioners, and public sector representatives, with the aim of investigating and documenting the status and achievements of CI initiatives in Canada. Based in the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto, CRACIN was funded through a four-year grant from the SSHRC under its Initiative on the New Economy (INE) Research Alliance program (File #538-2003-1012). Co-principal investigators for CRACIN included Andrew Clement (at the University of Toronto), Michael Gurstein (then at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, and now at the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, in Vancouver), Marita Moll (Telecommunities Canada), and Leslie Regan Shade (at Concordia University).

As a research alliance, CRACIN brought together CI researchers, practitioners, and government policy specialists from all across Canada, forming a network of expertise comprising some twenty academic researchers and graduate students, eleven community partner organizations, and representatives from three federal government departments.4 Case study sites and community partners for CRACIN included the following (listed roughly west to east across Canada):

• Vancouver Community Network (Vancouver, British Columbia)

• The Alberta Library (Edmonton, Alberta)

• The Keewatin Career Development Corporation (KCDC) (La Ronge, Saskatchewan)

• K-Net Services (Sioux Lookout, Ontario)

• St. Christopher House (Toronto, Ontario)

• Wireless Nomad Inc. (Toronto, Ontario)

• Communautique (Montréal, Québec)

• Île Sans Fil (Montréal, Québec)

• SmartLabrador (Forteau, Newfoundland and Labrador)

• Western Valley Development Agency (Cornwallis, Nova Scotia)

Case study sites were chosen based on, among other factors, a desire to reflect the geographic and demographic diversity of the country. Selected sites represented a broad range of organizational characteristics (e.g., paid versus volunteer staff), users/clients (e.g., Aboriginal, rural, and urban), and core missions (e.g., rural adjustment and development, Aboriginal connectivity, social inclusion, and civic participation).

CRACIN also included policy and program specialists from three federal government departments with a history of involvement in CI initiatives: Industry Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada,5 and Heritage Canada. Detailed community and government partner profiles are provided in Appendix A.

CRACIN researchers conducted three different kinds of research studies: (1) in-depth structured case studies of leading Canadian CI initiatives, (2) broad-based studies on themes or issues of relevance to CI generally, and (3) integrative studies addressing themes and issues that cut across two or more of the case study sites and provided a basis for undertaking systematic comparisons and drawing integrative conclusions. Overall, CRACIN was guided by the principles of participatory action research, and thus the researchers intended to co-design research questions, studies, and evaluation frameworks with community and government partners. In addition, the results were to be shared with and disseminated amongst CRACIN partners in order to maximize their potential benefits for both the CRACIN membership and the broader community of CI researchers and practitioners. Periodic CRACIN workshops over a three-year period served as venues for discussion and refinement of research studies and presentation of final results. Specifically, CRACIN case study research examined the role of CI initiatives in the following areas:

• Ameliorating Canada’s multi-faceted “digital divide”

• Fostering local civic participation, social inclusion, and the creation of social capital

• Facilitating both formal and informal community learning

• Promoting rural economic adjustment and development

• Enhancing economic, social, and cultural participation by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples

• Developing community-oriented informational resources and cultural content

• Encouraging local innovation in the development of ICT infrastructure, software, and applications tailored to meet local needs.

In addition, CRACIN researchers pursued broad-based and more integrative research on the following themes:

• The sustainability of community informatics initiatives

• Gender and youth perspectives on community networking

• Community networks and civic participation

• Community networking and the role of public libraries

• Community informatics theory

• Community networks as public goods

ICT policy and policy making in Canada

• Community networking and immigrants.

Finally, the founders of CRACIN pursued a broader set of research objectives that were focused on establishing the nascent field of community informatics, building research capacity within community organizations, and informing and influencing government policy. CRACIN researchers actively engaged in the development of case studies, conceptual frameworks, theoretical approaches, and curriculum materials for use within the field, both in Canada and internationally. CRACIN also supported the launch, in September 2004, of the Journal of Community Informatics (under the editorship of Michael Gurstein) as a venue for the publication of peer-reviewed research in the field. Furthermore, as directed by the grant supporting the project, the training and employability of graduate student researchers was enhanced through diverse opportunities to build knowledge and expertise through hands-on field research and related experience.

CRACIN investigators also sought to foster networks and the sharing of information, resources, and expertise with partners beyond academia, including community practitioners and government policy and program specialists. One goal of this effort was to enhance the capacity of community-based organizations to conduct research on their own and to engage in self-assessment as a means to reinforce the decision-making and problem-solving capacities of local organizations and communities. A final objective of the CRACIN project was to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of government programs in support of CI initiatives, with a view to informing future policy and program developments both in Canada and abroad.


The broad conceptual and methodological approach reflected in this volume is that of community informatics. As an emerging interdisciplinary research field, CI is concerned with the study of the enabling uses of information and communication technologies in communities—in short, how ICTs can help a community to achieve its social, economic, cultural, and political goals (Gurstein 2000). An emphasis on community is explicitly foregrounded: community informatics “combines an interest in the potentially transforming qualities of the new media with an analysis of the importance of community social relations for human interaction” (Keeble and Loader 2001b, 3). Although bridging the digital divide by assuring universal access to broadband networks is a central concern, CI encompasses a broader range of issues than mere technical connectedness to computer hardware and carriage facilities: CI explores how and under what conditions universal access to ICTs can be made as usable and useful as possible, particularly for the purposes of local economic and social development, social inclusion, civic participation, and political empowerment within marginalized populations and communities.

Two useful and complementary conceptual frameworks for understanding CI are Clement and Shade’s “access rainbow” (Clement and Shade 2000) and Gurstein’s concept of “effective use” (Gurstein 2004). Clement and Shade have argued that achieving mere technical connectedness to the Internet, as has been the goal of many government-sponsored connectivity programs and initiatives, is no guarantee that an individual or community will succeed in appropriating new ICTs in ways that promote their development, autonomy, or empowerment in a meaningful way. Achieving such empowerment calls for an approach that is attentive to a broader set of access issues affecting how ICTs can be effectively appropriated. Clement and Shade refer to this broader set of concerns as an access rainbow, which they envision as a multi-layered socio-technical model for universal access to ICTs. This access rainbow is modelled as seven layers, beginning with the underlying technical elements of connectedness and moving upward through layers that increasingly stress the requisite social infrastructure of access, such as training and public policy:

1. Carriage—the infrastructure for transporting the data

2. Devices—the computers and other devices used by individuals

3. Software tools—the browser, email program, and other software needed to use the Internet

4. Content/services—online databases and website repositories of information; email and e-commerce services

5. Service/access provision—local ISPs and community access points

6. Literacy / social facilitation—text and computer literacy; training and support services

7. Governance—public consultation on policy issues; social impact assessments.

Clement and Shade (2000) argue that their access rainbow model illustrates the multifaceted nature of the concept of access. Inspired by the layered models used for network protocols, the lower layers emphasize the conventional technical aspects. These have been complemented with additional upper layers emphasizing the more social dimensions. The main constitutive element is the service/content layer in the middle, since this is where the actual utility is most direct. However, all the other layers are necessary in order to accomplish proper content/service access.

As many of the case studies in this volume illustrate, mere technical connectedness to computer hardware and an Internet connection does not guarantee that users will become skilled users and/or active creators and producers of online information and services. Meaningful access to new ICTs calls for the development of a complementary social infrastructure of access to accompany the technical one. The community networks profiled in the following chapters, and others like them, lie at the heart of this social infrastructure.

Gurstein, meanwhile, defines effective use as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICTs into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals” (Gurstein 2003). Gurstein’s concept of effective use makes a similar point about the limitations of conceiving of the digital divide as a problem of mere technical connectedness (Gurstein 2003). A preoccupation with the digital divide as a problem of technical connectedness more often than not serves the commercial interests of Internet service providers (ISPs), without necessarily empowering or addressing the critical needs of those one is striving to connect. Achieving the latter demands that attention be paid to how connectivity is used to empower and enable marginalized and disenfranchised populations and communities, to support local economic development, social justice, and political empowerment, to improve access to education and health services, and to enable local control of the production and distribution of information and cultural material. It is, Gurstein writes more recently, “what is and can be done with the access that makes ICT meaningful” (Gurstein 2007, 13).6