Two professors at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (JSGS) in Saskatoon and Regina are working to help Indigenous and northern communities fight against COVID-19 with new digital technologies, according to a release from the University of Saskatchewan.

The projects will introduce Indigenous and northern communities to digital technologies that can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and provide commercial and economic opportunities for the region, the release said.

Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation and JSGS professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is “exploring the relevance and viability of technological innovations to the unique circumstances and opportunities of the North,” according to the release.

Coates said Indigenous and rural communities are often left out of major technological advancements — something he’s looking to change.

"We believe that you can technologically enable remote and rural and Indigenous communities. You can make them better places to live, safer places to live. You can improve the quality of life by using these technologies,” he told CTV News.

The idea is to provide additional economic and commercial opportunities for those regions.

Some of the technology they might use is related to automated food production, remote surgeries and 3D printing construction, according to Coates.

Coates is working alongside the Na-Cho Nyak Dun Development Corporation in the Yukon and Des Nedhe Development Corporation in northern Saskatchewan’s English River First Nation.

Sean Willy, president and CEO of Des Nedhe Development Corporation, said the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some challenges in rural and isolated communities that these new technologies can help address.

"Looking at food security after COVID. Why don't we look at new ways to grow food in northern Saskatchewan. From the housing aspect, you've heard the stories of Indigenous housing and the needs around that, so why don't we look at the innovative ways of 3D housing and how those things are going forward,” he said.

This is a two-year pilot project that will see Coates and his team work with other companies to explore ways to implement innovations and commercialize technologies in northern, Indigenous and remote communities, the release said.

Coates said they will start by visiting a handful of communities and seeing whether these technologies are something they want and if it can help them.

The idea is to then market and expand to multiple northern and Indigenous communities.

"I would hope five years from now, we'll be looking and saying the most innovative parts of the country are the small, remote communities that are using technology to address specific problems and burdens,” Coates said.

Meanwhile, Tarun Katapally, an associate professor at the University of Regina, is developing an app-based program that will “provide Indigenous community leaders with data to assist them in self-governing and decision-making during public health crises such as COVID-19,” according to the release.

Katapally will be working with community leaders and residents in Ile-a-la-Crosse to launch the program.

The release said Indigenous and northern residents who volunteer to participate will be asked to self-monitor and report any COVID-19 symptoms, and track their movements and interactions within the community.

“We must bring people together and provide them with ethical surveillance tools to help them overcome their fear, be better informed, and help our health and financial system monitor the situation,” Katapally said in the release.

The projects are receiving a cash injection of $400,000 from Mitacs, a national not-for-profit innovation organization.