A couple of weeks ago, Shawn Micallef wrote in his regular column for the Toronto Star about the chunky red COLLISION signs that had popped up in public parks. These conspicuous consumers of public space were meant to build awareness for the Collision tech conference, a yearly congregation of 37,000 people packed into the Enercare Centre.
I snagged a media pass for the event to see what the fuss was about. Day One opened with words from Chief Stacey LaForme (Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation). He seemed pretty pumped about the whole thing and delivered a sotto voce barb near the end of his welcome address: “you can stay as long as you like; I still got a little bit of land left.” Was he talking about colonialism or the signs?
After that, things moved fast. Talks were scheduled with the precision of an atomic clock and lasted from only 5 to 15 minutes each. Chairs materialized under the glow of massive LED pillars to accommodate a ‘fireside chat.’ Panelists summarized their positions in 45 seconds. Nobody wore socks.
I could feel myself growing more and more cynical. The event was set up as an extended-play commercial, with ‘disruptors’ and ‘visionaries’ taking the stage one after the other practically finishing each others’ sentences. There were no questions allowed; the speakers just talked, imparted wisdom, and then left.
The first respite came at Noon when Indigenous rights and water activist Autumn Peltier (Wikwemikong) came out and addressed the crowd about sustainability. “The key to understanding sustainability is listening,” she said, the first person so far to admit they might not have all the answers. “In 2023, technology may help, but I strongly believe … in listening to our knowledge keepers, our elders, in collaboration,” she said.
There are plenty of companies pitching “AI for sustainability” solutions, including Clean Water AI, ClimateAI, and Sipremo (“an AI-driven solution for proactive resilience building”). These are just the latest in a long line of companies that promise a utopian future through technology. “Indigenous people for generations have offered knowledge and a true understanding of sustainable traditional approaches,” Peltier continued. “Sorry Alexa, Indigenous people practiced plant-based medicine long before Alexa recommended it.”
I caught up with Autumn later as she ate lunch between engagements. “When we talk about technology we talk about a loss of connection,” she says. Peltier has long been advocating for deep and sustained engagement from the Government of Canada to end boil-water advisories across Canada. “He’s definitely made promises,” she says of Prime Minister Trudeau, “but also has a long history of broken promises.” In 2016, at the age of 12, Peltier got a chance to meet Trudeau at the Assembly of First Nations. She was told to just give him a gift and not say anything but instead she scolded him for not doing enough.
Feeling very anti-tech, I sat on a wall outside the Enercare Centre like a grump and watched people interact with the big red sign; the original sign, the ur-sign, of which all park signs were mere clones. People took selfies, action shots, and freeze-frame snapshots where you jump up and go “weee!” Strangers offered to take photos of fellow conference-goers.
One such encounter allowed for the meeting between an Italian entrepreneur (photographee) and Frank Horn (Kanien’keha [Mohawk]), Senior Manager of Community Engagement for Indigenous Relations at Rogers (photographer). “He asked where I was from and I said ‘here’,” says Horn, “we’re Indigenous.” He continued to explain: “we’re the people who were here before Europeans came.”
Horn is part of a team at Rogers, led by National Director Jennifer Campeau (Saulteaux/Cree/Metis from Yellowquill First Nation), who are enacting Peltier’s call to listen. “We’re not a sales team,” says Horn, “we’re community engagement. We ask ‘what’s your need,’ and ‘how can we help’?” The technology on display at the conference is capable of remarkable things, Horn says. He gestures at the sign; “what this is talking about, Indigenous people want to be part of, but they need Internet as a first step.”
Campeau tells me Rogers helped connect Chief Stacey LaForme’s community and are working on an even bigger project in B.C. “As part of TRC’s Call to Action 92,” she tells me, which focuses on the role corporations can play in reconciliation, “along Highway 16, the Highway of Tears, we’re putting up towers and two rest-stops by winter-time so that whole corridor will be wired up for safety.”
Horn also sees value in technology helping to preserve dying Indigenous languages. “There’s a worry that the languages of our elders are going to be gone,” he says, “but broadband creates opportunities to save it, record it, transmit it.” His Mother and Auntie are both fluent Mohawk speakers. “With the pandemic we have regular Zoom calls so they can teach the family Mohawk. That’s the power of what we do.”
I was feeling less cynical so I took a picture of the sign. There were people in the way so it only said “ISION” but I didn’t mind. There should always be people in front of signs like this. It’s a reminder that if you can manage to look past the comic sans font of the intruding infrastructure, there are real people around who want to make a difference.