Research into the Digital Divide in Canada


Rory O’Brien
Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto

July 23, 2001




In this paper an overview of the research done on the digital divide in Canada is presented.  It provides an account of the latest statistics on access and usage, outlines the nature of the research efforts conducted over the last eight years in the area of public policy and advocacy, lists the strategy components of the Government of Canada, and discusses the upcoming issue of broadband access.  Finally, it concludes with some brief mentions of areas worthy of future research.


Latest statistics on Internet access and use


Statistics Canada has been conducting surveys on Internet access and usage for many years [see].


The following are some of the findings of a 2000 Statistics Canada survey of 25,090 respondents ("General Social Survey: Internet use 2000," 2001):













In summing up the digital divide as described by this survey, Dryburgh writes,


“Internet users differ from non-users in average age, education, and income. Non-users of the Internet are more likely to be older individuals, and are more likely to have less education and lower household income than Internet users. Non-users are more likely to be women than men at every age group. Francophones are less likely to use the Internet than anglophones, and those living in rural Canada are less likely to use the Internet than urban dwellers.” (Dryburgh, 2001)


The main reported barrier to accessing the Internet is cost, especially for younger people and those with incomes less than $30,000 a year.  Among those earning over $50,000 a year, lack of time is an impediment to use.  Lack of access to computers or access services also precluded Internet usage.


An intriguing finding was that only 27% of those not yet online expressed an interest in using the Internet, meaning that 73%, or almost three-quarters of the offline population, were not interested.  While almost half of people aged 15 to 24 were interested in getting online, only 8% of those aged 65 to 74 were.  This is an important item to note, and it has been extensively explored by Andrew Reddick in a research report called The Dual Digital Divide (Reddick, Boucher & Groseilliers, 2000).  Reddick differentiates the first divide, between those connected and those not, from the second divide, between those who want to get connected and those that do not.  He categorizes the latter into 3 types: 1. those ‘near-users’ who face cost and skill barriers but perceive value in getting online (women mostly), 2. those who face similar barriers but have only a limited sense of value, and 3. those who face barriers and have no value perception (mostly seniors).  He recommends some ways to overcome the barriers and improve the perceived value of connection among the 3 types.


Public Policy Research


Aside from statistical surveys on Internet usage, much of the research on the digital divide has focused on public policy surrounding the implementation of the Internet in Canada.  Several researchers in particular can be singled out including: Andrew Clement (Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto), Leslie Regan Shade (Department of Communication, University of Ottawa), Michael Gurstein (Associate Chair in the Management of Technological Change, University College of Cape Breton), Liss Jeffrey (McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, University of Toronto), Vincent Mosco (School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University), Andrew Reddick and Phillippa Lawson (Public Interest Advocacy Centre), Garth Graham (Telecommunities Canada), and Marita Moll (Canadian Teachers Federation).


They are proponents of a vision of Internet implementation that is at odds with a perceived corporate view of the Internet as an online shopping mall.  These individuals and organizations express a desire to see the evolution of the Internet driven by the local needs and decisions of people as citizens, rather than consumers.  To these advocates, “cyberspace is public space” (Yerxa & Moll, 1995; Graham 1996; Menzies, 2000; Mosco, 2000; Moll & Shade, 2001).



The Universal Access Project


Andrew Clement at has been at the forefront of research into the policy implications of the Canadian digital divide.  From 1995 through 1998, under the auspices of the university’s Information Policy Research Program, Clement worked with many of the aforementioned colleagues and his graduate students on the Universal Access project.  The aim of the project was to produce a series of forums and discussion papers, emphasizing the role of local community involvement in Internet usage and the need to promote the new medium as a public forum. 


One of the more interesting conceptual models of Internet access that arose from the Universal Access project was devised by Clement and Shade (Clement & Shade, 2000).  The Access Rainbow splits a number of elements related to access into a spectrum of seven items ranging from technical to social concerns (see Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 Access Rainbow 

Source: Clement, A. & Shade, L. R. (2000) The access rainbow: conceptualizing universal access to the information/communication infrastructure



  1. Carriage – the infrastructure for transporting the data
  2. Devices – the computers and other devices used by the individual
  3. Software Tools – the browser, emailer and other software 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


According to the authors,


“A key feature of this model is that it 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.” (Clement & Shade, 2000)


It is a tool that has proved useful in separating carriage from content issues and has been effective in conceptualizing areas of needed facilitation in creating a working network of social service providers (Mielniczuk & Clement, 1996) as well as gaining a better understanding of gender issues in access projects (Balka, 1997).


The research synergies of participants resulted in several other papers and commentaries (see, and culminated in a set of recommendations on a National Access Strategy (Information Policy Research Program, 1998).  These recommendations included:


Community networks in Canada had their beginnings with the FreeNet movement modeled after the Cleveland FreeNet in the U.S.  In 1992, the Victoria and National Capital Freenets started providing free access to the Internet.  By 1995 there were 24 cities with Freenets (Avis, 1995), and 60 by 1998 (Surak, 1998).  Over the past few years, however, there has been a marked decline in the number of early-initiated freenets operating in larger urban centres, primarily due to fundraising difficulties.  Telecommunities Canada was incorporated in 1994 as an community network umbrella organization for purposes of coordination and advocacy.  It has managed to produce a number of papers and reports on community networking issues [see].


The Coalition for Public Information (CPI) is a non-profit organization created to ensure the Internet was deployed in manner that strengthened the public sphere.  It was quite active in the years 1993 to 1999, but has since become somewhat inactive.  One of their main contributions to the policy debate was establishing a number of discussion forums, both on- and off-line, to obtain public input into the proposed Information Highway.  This effort resulted in a document called Future Knowledge: The Report - A Public Policy Framework for the Information Highway, in which a national vision was articulated, one that was based on citizen networking and equity of access (Skrzeszewski & Cubberley, 1995).  Over the next several years, CPI worked closely with other advocacy groups to get its message out.  Unfortunately, its message was not closely heeded by the decision-makers at the upper levels of government, according to Cheryl Buchwald, a PhD student who did her thesis on assessing CPI’s relevance to the policy-making process (Buchwald, 1999).


This paper is too short to go into detail on many of the issues raised and the stances taken, but it is generally felt among the advocacy community that regardless of the government rhetoric on listening to stakeholders and upholding the public interest, the corporate agenda has had ascendancy on Internet policy matters.



Government Strategy


Canada has been lauded as one of the most advanced Internet countries in the world.  This has been attributed to the many government programs that have helped promote Internet access across the country.  The Canadian government strategy is called ‘Connecting Canadians’, and according to Steinour


“The Connectedness Agenda is organized along six pillars:


1.   Canada On‑line ‑ provide all Canadians with affordable access to Canada's world‑leading Information Highway infrastructure ;


2.  Smart Communities ‑ partner with communities and local industry to support pilot projects that use information and communications technologies (ICTs) to link people and organizations together, stimulate productivity and innovation, foster demand for high technology goods and services and address local economic and social needs;


3.  Canadian Content On‑line ‑ increase the availability of Canadian content on‑line ‑ content that reflects Canadian values, achievements and aspirations, and promote Canada as global supplier of digital content and advanced Internet applications;


4.  Electronic Commerce ‑ implement a leading‑edge domestic policy and legislative framework (privacy, security, digital signatures, standards, public key infrastructure, tax neutrality, intellectual property and consumer protection), promote it internationally, and stimulate the development and use of electronic commerce by consumers and business to make Canada a global centre of excellence for electronic commerce;


5.  Canadian Governments On‑line ‑ provide Canadians with on‑line access to government information and services; and


6.  Connecting Canada to the World ‑ promote a brand image of Canada as global centre of excellence for connectedness by working with international bodies to harmonize regulatory and policy frameworks, by promoting Canadian best practices to other countries, and by promoting global interconnectivity and interoperability of broadband networks, applications and services.” (Steinour, 2001)


There are a number of government programs that have been successful in implementing the ‘Carriage’ and ‘Devices’ aspects of the Access Rainbow, and somewhat successful in the ‘Tools’ and ‘Content’ areas.  But it is still a question as to whether the ‘Access Provision’, ‘Social Facilitation’ and ‘Governance’ parts of the Access Rainbow are being adequately covered [see Appendix A for a listing of government programs].


Project evaluations as research documents


The literally thousands of implementation projects, funded 50% by these government programs have amassed a great number of research documents in the form of project reports.  Much of the research on how the information and communications technologies are being used by some ‘have-nots’ segments of the population has been associated with the Office of Learning Technologies (OLT) program of Human Resources and Development Canada (HRDC) [see].  In several instances the research projects were carried out by researchers associated with particular university programs.  The following are but two examples contained in the set of reports.


For users in rural and remote areas

The Centre for Learning Technologies (CLT) and the Rural and Small Town Programme (RSTP) teams at Mount Allison University engaged in a study of the academic upgrading needs of adult learners and economic development volunteer learning needs.  Working with participants at nine CAP sites in New Brunswick, they concluded that while more research was needed, there should be more emphasis placed on adequate recruitment and screening for ensuring commitment, more support materials, facilitation and monitoring are needed (Mount Alison University, 1999).

For seniors

Researchers at the Seniors’ Education Centre, University of Regina worked with 300 senior citizens age 55+ over a period of two years in forming a computer club.  The methods devised for encouraging interactive use, as well as for implementing a train-the-trainer program were deemed to be successful (Seniors' Education Centre, 1999).


Broadband - the next big policy issue

As the number and range of applications and services that require multi-media increases, so does the demand for high-speed Internet access.  To advise the federal government on how best to facilitate the roll-out of such high-speed connectivity, the National Broadband Task Force was established in 2000.  The multi-stakeholder Task Force included 36 members, the majority of whom were CEOs of large media corporations.  Working in conjunction with inter-governmental bodies, it solicited research on the current state of affairs of broadband service availability.  The following are some statistics on the current state of broadband in Canada.

Municipal access

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, in a survey of just over half of the 4,070 municipalities across Canada done in late 2000 as an input to the task force (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2001), found that:

·         72% had Internet access via a local or toll-free number

·         7% report that the only means to access the Internet is though satellite technologies.

·         36% had high-speed Internet services available through the phone [81% in cities over 100,000]]

·         29% had high-speed Internet service available through a cable company [85% in cities over 100,000]

·         19% have implemented a community fibre network approach [39% in cities over 100,000]

·         75% have wireless telephone service [86% in cities over 100,000]

As can be seen, the larger the municipality, the greater the availability of high-speed Internet access.

Rural access

In the last quarter of 2000, the Rural Secretariat of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada commissioned a survey of 5,000 rural and urban residents and found that:

·         32% of rural respondents indicated they had no access to the Internet compared with 24% in urban Canada

·         34% of rural Internet users experienced high comfort levels with using computers, compared to 46% of urbanites

·         86% of rural users used dial-up modems from home, compared to 66% of urban dwellers, while 12% used cable modems, compared to 26% respectively.

In its report on these findings to the Task Force, it emphasized that the digital divide between urban and rural residents is increasing – “whereas the percentage of urban households connected to the Internet increased from 30% to 47% from 1997-1999, rural connectivity increased from 20% to 35% in the same period”. (The Rural Secretariat, 2001).

Major findings and recommendations of the National Broadband Task Force include:

·        All Canadians should have equitable and affordable access to broadband services;

·        Focus should be on communities where the private sector is unlikely to deliver services;

·        First Nation, Inuit, rural and remote communities should be a priority along with public institutions (learning institutions, libraries, health care centres and public access points);

·        Investment estimates for deployment of broadband infrastructure vary widely depending on whether they include support for transport to communities or access within communities, as well as depending on the combination of technology solutions;

·        Accessibility means more than infrastructure - it also means content, services and building community and individual capacity;

In response to the Task Force report, there were a number of critical suggestions made.  A key one was a warning to consider the need for the technology, i.e., the ‘first mile’ rather than the ‘last mile’.  Providing technical access capabilities alone is insufficient; “useful access”, a mixture of both locally meaningful content and supportive promotion of emergent services is something that should be planned and cultivated prior to technical provisioning (Civille, Gurstein & Pigg, 2001).




This paper has examined the various research sources and findings regarding the digital divide in Canada.  Future research must look at such things as the effect of the Internet on public discourse, the degree to which the corporate agenda may be at odds with a vision of civil society and how that plays out in the evolution of the online environment, how the unconnected may be affected by an eventual replacement of government offline services with online services, and finally, how broadband and media convergence will exacerbate access issues.



Appendix A:

Canadian Government Programs to Reduce the Digital Divide

As of July 18, 2000,













Office of Learning Technologies

References Cited



Avis, A. ( (1995, August) Public Spaces on the Information Highway: The Role of Community Networks, 8/4/1999.


Balka, E. (1997, 6/2) Viewing Universal Access Through a Gendered Lens,, in: Proceedings of Universal Access Workshop: Developing a Canadian Access Strategy. Universal Access to Essential Network Services (Toronto, Information Policy Research Program, University of Toronto). 15/7/2001.


Buchwald, C. C. (1999) Canada's Coalition for Public Information: A case study of a public interest group in the information highway policy-making process, diss, 60/10, 242. 2000 (Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto).


Civille, R., Gurstein, M. & Pigg, K. (2001, January) Access to What? First Mile Issues for Rural Broadband, (Industry Canada - National Broadband Task Force). 15/7/2001.


Clement, A. & Shade, L. R. (2000) The access rainbow: conceptualizing universal access to the information/communication infrastructure, in: M. Gurstein (Ed) Community Informatics: Enabling Communities with Information and Communication Technologies, pp. 32-51 (Hershey, PA, Idea Group Publishing.).


Dryburgh, H. (2001) Changing our ways: why and how Canadians use the Internet, (Statistics Canada). 1/7/2001.


Federation of Canadian Municipalities (2001, January) Final Report on Inventory of Broadband Internet Services Available in Municipal Jurisdictions: Executive Summary, (Industry Canada, Telecommunications and Policy Branch). 15/7/2001.


General Social Survey: Internet use 2000, (2001, 26/3), in: The Daily (Statistics Canada). 1/7/2001.


Graham, G. ( (1996, 26/3) What Community Networks Are All About, (Telecommunities Canada). 15/7/2001.


Information Policy Research Program ( (1998) Call for a National Task Force on Universal Access,, in: Information Policy Research Program - Universal Access (Toronto, Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto). 1/7/2001.


Menzies, H. (2000) On Digital Public Space and the Real Tragedy of the Commons,, in: E-Commons Vs E-Commerce (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives).


Mielniczuk, S. & Clement, A. (1996, 25/6) Sharing Integrated Computer Communications Among Non-profit Organizations: The Case of Ontario's Social Development Network. INET96 (Montreal).


Moll, M. & Shade, L. R. (2001, February) What Do You Want the Internet to Be?, in: Submissions to the National Broadband Task Force (Industry Canada). 1/7/2001.


Mosco, V. ( (2000, February) Public Policy and the Information Highway - Access, Equity and Universality Report to the National Library of Canada. 1/7/2001.


Mount Alison University (1999, 7/7) Exploring Technology-Mediated Learning in Rural Communities, (HRDC, Office of Learning Technologies). 15/7/2001.


Reddick, A., Boucher, C. & Groseilliers, M. (2000) The Dual Digital Divide: The Information Highway in Canada, (The Public Interest Advocacy Centre). 1/7/2001.


Seniors' Education Centre, U. E., University of Regina (1999, March) Not Afraid of the Computer: The Older Adults & Learning Technologies Project, (HRDC, Office of Learning Technologies). 15/7/2001.


Skrzeszewski, S. & Cubberley, M. (1995, 3/4) Future-Knowledge: The Report - A Public Policy Framework for the Information Highway, 1/7/2001.


Steinour, D. ( (2001, March) Canada’s Policies and Programs to Reduce the Digital Divide [draft document],, in: Development Cooperation Steering Group Request for Information (APEC Telecommunications and Information Working Group). 1/7/2001.


Surak, K. M. ( (1998, 15/4) A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Community Computer Networks, 15/7/2001.


The Rural Secretariat (2001, 12/4) Background Report To The National Broadband Task Force: Rural And Remote Broadband Access, (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). 1/7/2001.


Yerxa, S. & Moll, M. ( (1995) Commodification, Communication, and Culture: Democracy's Dead End on the Infobahn,, Government Information in Canada/Information gouvernementale au Canada, 1(3). 15/7/2001.