In August, CIRA welcomed Maureen James to head up its Community Investment Program, which provides roughly $1 million annually to not-for-profits, charities and academic institutions doing good things for and through the Canadian internet. Below are a few questions I asked her to help us get to know her better.
As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said, there's no place like home. Canada, and Canada's internet, are at the heart of what sparked my interest in joining CIRA.
My first job out of university was with Web Networks, a non-profit internet service provider (ISP) in Toronto, at a time when people used dialup modems to connect to the internet. There, I was able to put my ideals into practice helping Canadians use the internet for their work in environmental activism, peace, international development and many other social justice issues.
Web, as we called it, was the first Canadian member of a growing global network of like-minded ISPs, known as the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) - and that's where I moved next, drawn by the irresistible pull of world travel and the opportunity to put to use a knack for fundraising and strategy development.
That's when global networks became my occupational focus - first APC, and then IFEX, a network of over 100 organizations worldwide working on freedom of expression issues, including internet access and digital rights. At IFEX I added grant making to my responsibilities.
Yearning to turn my attention back home, the Community Investment Program position at CIRA came up just at the right time. It brings my experience and interests full circle: my early and abiding concern with supporting internet access and freedom of expression with the strategy and grant making CIRA makes possible here in Canada.
2. What is it about CIRA and its's Community Investment Program that inspires you?
I've always been inspired by community-led responses to a need. Community members are well positioned to come up with solutions that fit the shape and size of how they live and work together - online as well. It is an honour to help bring some of these solutions to fruition through CIRA's Community Investment Program.
Additionally, I'm in awe of the generosity and foresight that has led to CIRA's Community Investment Program. The commitment CIRA has made to strengthen Canada's internet by directing a portion of every .CA domain purchased to the Community Investment Program, is impressive. It provides opportunities to an incredible diversity of people and places that might not otherwise have the chance to benefit from what the internet has to offer.
Now, having the privilege of seeing CIRA from the inside, I'm even more impressed. I see the high-intensity client-focused collaboration and teamwork that CIRA staff dedicate to the systems and services that operate our online Canada - and it's the ongoing success of that work that makes the Community Investment Program possible.
3. What are you most looking forward to?
With five years under its belt, CIRA's Community Investment Program has a strong foundation to build on. That will be my focus: building on program successes and charting a path that will allow us to further advance some of the pressing issues identified in CIRA's recent report The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada. The report captures the experiences, opinions and proposed solutions of 70 grassroots organizations across Canada working to make the internet better for Canadians. We know there are many organizations out there with practical ideas for moving the needle on these issues one community at a time, so we'll be looking for those opportunities and partnerships.
4. Which projects stood out for you when you began learning about the program?
It's almost cliché to say Canada is a vast country. But it is especially true when you are talking about internet infrastructure. One of Canada's key challenges is a lack of infrastructure and affordable access in remote and rural areas. So here are a few projects that stood out for me:
- First Mile Connectivity Consortium 's project that advocated for community broadband for remote First Nations communities across Canada.
- Ragged Edge Community Network Society, a project enhancing network infrastructure and services to remote communities on northern Vancouver Island.
- Peace Region Internet Society who are replacing high-cost satellite with wireless in Saddle Hills, Alberta.
And it's not just isolated communities that are affected; urban areas face internet infrastructure challenges too, particularly within low income populations. So it's also projects like Vancouver Community Network's Street Messaging System for homeless youth and people experiencing poverty that really impressed me - and that's a project that is now being expanded to more cities. Or the work of groups like Free Geek Toronto, who we've supported not only to make refurbished hardware readily available to those who need it, but who also provide hands-on practical training for marginalized populations in Toronto.
I was impressed to learn that CIRA's Community Investment Program also gives back in other ways - for example, by investing in building Canadian internet exchange points, which are hubs where independent networks can interconnect directly to one another. They provide a broad bandwidth option connecting Canadians in a faster more robust way, all within our borders, addressing a key privacy concern.
5. What else can you share with us?
If ever there was a sign I've landed in the right place, I'd say it was an image of a paddle boarder on cira.ca. The homepage photo, which changes with the seasons, is one of summer, the outdoors and feels quintessentially Canadian. Not only is paddle boarding a new hobby for me, but I'm thrilled to bring my attention back home, working on a project that focuses on Canada and Canadians. And like paddle boarding, I'm sure working at CIRA to build a better online Canada will be an inspiring and rewarding journey.
Learn more about CIRA's Community Investment Program and cira.ca/cip.