Lost in the Bill C-18 Debates: Connectivity Issues in Wildfire Zones

Canadian’s are hearing a lot about how lack of emergency information is all Meta’s fault. What you don’t see as much? The connectivity issues.

In the face of tragic wildfires across Canada, the Canadian media and the government have decided to score some cheap political points by politicizing the wildfires. This by saying that Meta is somehow blocking critical emergency information by blocking news links. Obviously, emergency information is still available on Facebook and it was always highly questionable if it is even appropriate to rely heavily on Facebook for emergency information in the first place.

While the government continued to double down on the bad talking point that Meta is endangering people’s lives by blocking news, there is, actually issues accessing emergency information that is on a much more fundamental level: being able to access the internet in the first place.

Reports have been nudging their way through the noise that says that outages for cell phones and internet has been extremely problematic in the Northwest Territories. Here’s a recent report from CabinRadio:

Cochrane calls for infrastructure supports

NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane, speaking at a Calgary evacuation centre on Friday, expressed frustration that the territory’s calls for infrastructure supports have fallen on deaf ears. She called on all Canadians to pressure the federal government to ensure northerners have access to equal services.

“We’ve been asking for the same infrastructure – roads, communications that people in Canada take for granted – for decades,” she said.

The premier pointed out many communities only have one road in and out, some of which were directly impacted by wildfires as residents were forced to flee. The only fibre link serving the South Slave region was also damaged by a wildfire, causing lengthy outages that made it difficult to communicate during the crisis.

“We had no redundancy. I couldn’t get a hold of people. I couldn’t know if they were safe, if they were evacuated or not,” Cochrane said.

“So I’m tired. I’ve been tired for a long time, asking for infrastructure. And now I’m angry. And I think that I’m not going to be able to do it alone.

“I need every single Canadian to say it is not okay that the territories live like third world countries. That we do not have the same services that people in the south have.”

(Via @fanCRTCProfling)

As it turns out, this has been a very longstanding problem for residents of the Northwest Territories. For instance, here is an article published back in March from EyeOntheArctic:

Auditor general says small, remote communities still falling behind on internet access

A new report from Canada’s auditor general says rural and remote communities are still way behind the rest of the country when it comes to internet access — and nowhere is that disparity greater than in the Northwest Territories.

According to data from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) included in the report, only 18 per cent of people in small N.W.T. communities have access to high-speed internet. In contrast, 98 per cent of people in larger communities have access to high-speed internet.

Jeannie Gruben sees firsthand the impact of slow internet every day as the youth co-ordinator for the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation.

Gruben said kids use the youth centre’s slow and unreliable internet to do research for school, apply for jobs, play games and chat with friends.

“It doesn’t run that well most of the time. It cuts out about once a day and it’s not really as efficient as we would like it to be for the youth,” she said.

In 2022, a Globe and Mail article highlighted these problems:

Residents of Iqaluit say a recent 24-hour internet disruption highlights the lack of reliable internet service in Canada’s northern communities, and adds urgency to calls for new backup options to secure online access for work, education and health care services.

On Aug. 3, customers of NorthwesTel, a Bell Canada subsidiary, in Nunavut’s capital lost access to the internet for more than a day, forcing some businesses to close and delaying five planes.

While NorthwesTel said that landline and cellular phone service still worked as they should, for Mayor Kenny Bell, the service disruption – which he said left many citizens without usable internet connections for more than a day – was a reminder of the vulnerabilities his citizens face, despite paying some of the highest prices in Canada for internet and cell service.

“This isn’t about loading Instagram. This is about running government, schools, businesses and accessing emergency services,” Mr. Bell said. “Just because we’re a remote community doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be connected to the rest of Canada.”

NorthwesTel maintains that the disruption was not a full “outage” and instead “a degradation in service caused by a technical error” that left phones and emergency connections intact. But Mr. Bell said the internet service was essentially unusable.

“I don’t know what NorthwesTel is talking about,” Mr. Bell said. “The city here was out. Our offices didn’t have internet, our cellphones weren’t working, everything was down.”

In 2018, the issue was, once again, highlighted. Here’s an article on the CBC back then:

The federal government announced this week that every community in the Northwest Territories now has 4G cell service and high speed internet, but some community members aren’t convinced.

“Even though they’re saying it’s high speed internet, it’s not really high speed,” said Rocky Norwegian Sr., mayor of Tulita.

The announcement was in celebration of a 5-year project, completed at the end of September 2017 when Wekweeti received 4G cell service.

Northwestel invested about $230 million in the project, which improved mobile, telephone, and internet services for communities in the N.W.T., Yukon, northern B.C., and Alberta.

Norwegian said the internet speed is definitely better than it was a year ago, but he’s still not fully satisfied.

He said it’s not fast enough for him to use his Android TV box, which would let him watch Netflix. There’s just not enough power to support that kind of streaming.

The main reason: residents in the community do not currently have access to a fibre optic line.

So, it sounds like these issues have been happening for years now. So, the question then becomes, if this is not only a longstanding problem, but a problem that persists today, why does this issue get largely crickets from the government? The answer is that this is an issue that the federal government bears some responsibility for. Indeed, as we highlighted back in 2021, the Liberals have long promised to increase broadband access to rural and indigenous communities. Yet, here we are, years later and still seeing issues just getting basic reasonable internet services to these communities. Yes, it wasn’t as though nothing was done at all, yet at the same time, it doesn’t look like enough was done to get all of Canada properly connected to the internet.

So, for the government, it is easier to deflect the blame onto someone else for any issues revolving around getting emergency information to people. It’s easier to say that Meta isn’t allowing news links and, therefore, people not being able to access emergency information is all Meta’s fault. It’s a totally different thing when residents of these communities point out that being able to access Meta platforms in the first place is a luxury because of the frequent internet outages in the affected areas. That’s because blame can more easily fall onto the feds because the obvious question then becomes, “why wasn’t more done to finally solve these issues in the first place?”

It wasn’t as though the current government didn’t have enough time to address these issues. They have been in power since 2015, so every single aforementioned article above did happen on Prime Minister Trudeau’s watch. Yet, here we are today still talking about internet accessibility issues. No wonder Trudeau has been especially motivated to politicize the wildfires and say emergency information isn’t getting out to residents because of Meta. This has all the hallmarks of a broken election promise and the last thing the Liberals want is reason for people to believe that the current government could’ve done more to prevent these issues in the first place.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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