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Putting IT in Community : Bob Jonkman’s Expansive Vision

Updated: a day ago

You could call Bob Jonkman a high-tech maverick. As a founder and former member of the Pirate Party of Canada, a frequent Green Party candidate and a volunteer with Fair Vote Canada, Mr. Jonkman defies the stereotype of the insular, video-game addicted IT geek. And, as with many outliers, Bob values personal autonomy over job security.

In a region that gave birth to the BlackBerry, is home to OpenText - Canada’s biggest software company - and hosts one of the largest Google offices in the country, Jonkman has studiously avoided hitching his engine to a corporate behemoth - preferring to chug along as a self-employed computer consultant, fixing hardware and software problems for individuals and small businesses.

He also believes in something called the Free Software Movement; “free” meaning having the freedom to modify and change computer code rather than getting stuck with proprietary software that can’t be altered, made by the likes of digital giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google.

Jonkman isn’t a member of Communitech, the association representing more than one thousand high-tech companies across Waterloo Region and beyond. He hesitates to call it elitist. Communitech is “a big driver” of innovation in the region, but its services “are not being offered to the entire community,” he says. He was once invited to participate in a seminar on skills analysis for workers laid off at Research In Motion, and he’s been to other Communitech events, but never felt comfortable there. The atmosphere was a bit too corporate and competitive for his liking.

While reluctant to throw in his lot with corporate giants he is anything but averse to personally supporting grass roots organizations. About a decade ago he helped start the Pirate Party of Canada, which emerged out of a movement in Sweden against attempts to crack down on software, music and cultural piracy. Pirate Parties formed in Sweden and other countries to promote the free sharing of software and other forms of intellectual property. A few years later Jonkman jumped the Pirate ship because the party violated its own principles against copyright protection. Switching to the Green Party, he has run and finished fourth in three elections, and plans to carry the party banner again for the Brantford-Brant riding during the next federal election. He’s also volunteered for Fair Vote Canada and served on the board of the Waterloo Region chapter because he believes our first-past-the-post system is less democratic than proportional representation.

Representing what many Canadians still consider a “fringe” party and espousing electoral reform measures that the current government has resoundingly rejected does not faze Jonkman; in fact he embraces his underdog role. “He’s willing to stand up for his principles at the expense of convenience,” says Paul Nijjar, who has known Jonkman for about 15 years. “He dedicates a lot of energy to his activist and volunteer causes, and is willing to do some of the maintenance work required to keep initiatives going.” Jonkman is one of the most astute and ethical proponents of free software in the Waterloo area, says another friend, Steve Izma. Not only that, “he’s the best example around here of someone with a sophisticated knowledge of the intersection of politics and technology.”

Born in the Netherlands in 1959, Jonkman came to Canada with his family in 1967, settling in Burlington. His interest in computers started at the age of 11 or 12 when he began attending open houses and playing with computers at McMaster University. At M.M. Robinson High School, he volunteered in the school library organizing computer databases, and found a part-time job after school in the audio-visual department at the nearby Halton Board of Education office, where he played around on the board's IBM 1130 computer in his spare time. By the time he enrolled at McMaster, he already had plenty of computer-programming knowledge under his belt. He left McMaster at the end of his sophomore year to work as an audio-visual technician at the Hamilton Public Library, drawing from knowledge he had gained at the Halton school board and from volunteering at the campus radio station. “Always stuff with a technical bent,” is how he describes the work that attracts him. His interest in radio continues to this day in the form of a weekly radio show that he hosts on CKMS 102.7 FM called Community Connections.

In 1987, Jonkman started his own software consulting firm and has been self-employed for most of his working career except for a 15-year stint at the City of Toronto starting in 1992 where he worked as an IT manager and tech analyst. Among his jobs was providing tech support and helping to set up and manage the email system for the offices of the mayor and councillors. He has also worked briefly at Revenue Canada and the Working Centre in Kitchener, where he provided tech support and did some teaching.

Watching politicians at work made him realize they were just ordinary people, not rocket scientists. “They had no particular background or education to be a councillor or the mayor for that matter. And yet they did the job reasonably well enough to get re-elected.”This realization further whetted his appetite for public office, which had been inadvertently awakened in 1991 when he decided to become a Canadian citizen. In the course of the citizenship interview the Citizenship Court Judge asked him who the Governor-General was. Even though he knew the answer was Ray Hnatyshyn, Jonkman was puzzled. “Why is that answer contingent on my getting my citizenship?” he asked the judge. “As a citizen, it is your obligation to be involved in the political system,” he was told.

Wanting to be closer to his relatives living in Floradale, he moved to this area in 2000, settling with his wife in Elmira where he has lived ever since. By this time he was well entrenched in the free-software movement, having started writing his own software in the 1980s and bristling at any restrictions on adapting proprietary software code for his own needs or those of others. He points to changes in the U.S. Copyright Act in the 1970s and 1980s as a turning point in curbing freedoms on software expression. These restrictions engendered serious outcomes as the second millennium drew to a close. Much of the worry over Y2K in 2000 could be traced to the dominance of proprietary software, Jonkman says. “If something went wrong with the software, we had no access to the source code. We couldn’t fix anything. All we could do was restart the server at best.”

As a dedicated advocate of free software it was natural that in the early 2000s Bob started attending meetings of the Kitchener-Waterloo Linux Users Group, and has been involved ever since. Named after its Finnish creator Linus Torvalds, Linux is the kernel or driving component behind a suite of operating systems made using programs from the GNU project, a free-software movement that began in the 1980s. In espousing the virtues of free software, Jonkman likes to use the example of the modern tractor. “Largely diesel-powered computers that pull things,” tractors have become so complicated that a farmer can’t fix them without using expensive software made by the manufacturer, he says. This trend has spawned a group called the “right to repair” movement,” he notes. Three-quarters of the smartphones in use today are based on Android software owned by Google. Android in turn is based on open-source tools made using the Linux kernel. Yet all the carriers have “written wrappers” around this software so it can’t be changed or modified, Jonkman says.

Jonkman is also a member of NetSquared Kitchener-Waterloo. The organization was started in 2015 as a gathering space for tech people working in the non-profit sector to solve problems and share best practices. “Working in tech for a non-profit can be a lonely endeavor because sometimes you are the only person in the organization who understands technology at all,” says Nijjar, who founded the group along with the K-W Linux Users Group.

Many people confuse the terms open-source and free software but there is a difference, Jonkman says. Both require the availability of source code, but open source is a business model “where the publication of source code will increase the ecosystem around a particular piece of software, leading to the development of apps, tools and other services that will enhance the original software,” he says. Free software, meanwhile, must be available without any restrictions, including the ability to modify, enhance and share the software, Jonkman notes.

Allowing you to manipulate and customize the software is not what the tech giants want because it interferes with their ability to monitor your activity. “So we see TVs, thermostats and especially phone apps that are full of software that reports back to the corporations on all the behaviour of the software users,” Jonkman says. With free software, “this kind of surveillance wouldn’t exist.” He admits that fighting battles for free software can seem quixotic, like a lonely quest. But it’s still worth it in the end, he says. Allowing software and other forms of expression to be copyrighted and patented is a restriction on culture, Jonkman says. “Your own culture is being taken away from you.”

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