A Divided Nation
The growing gulf between Canada’s digital haves and have-nots
I was in Iqaluit the last time I watched a movie on VHS. It was mid-December 2014, and while I was a whiz at downloading and streaming content back in Toronto, Nunavummiut didn’t have access to broadband internet service. What they did have was the local Northmart and a bin of used videotapes. My hosts were on a Kevin Costner kick at the time, and after a day of dogsledding in Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, we picked up a copy of Dances with Wolves for $1.
In tech time, six years is about as long as Dances with Wolves is in movie time — an eternity. But even that hasn’t been long enough to make a material difference when it comes to internet service for much of rural and northern Canada. Consider Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the lone MP for the largest electoral district in the world. Despite some modest upgrades for Nunavut’s twenty-five communities in 2019, the NDP’s northern affairs critic still found herself unable to load a simple Wikipedia page this summer, and one of her staff members couldn’t send an email. “We are in the capital of Nunavut and this is a (bad) joke,” Qaqqaq managed to write on Twitter. “How am I to virtually connect to parliament.”
In 2016, when residents of many Nunavut communities had internet speeds only up to 2.5 Mbps, the CRTC stated that all Canadians should have access to download speeds of at least 50 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Four years later, and after a string of fawning press releases, Northwestel’s Tamarmik Nunalitt service is no faster than 15 Mbps (and often non-existent if it’s raining). In Manitoba, Broadband Communications North has just secured federal funding to offer upgraded service — at a whopping 10 Mbps — in five northern communities, while hundreds around Dawson City, Yukon, will be entirely without internet access when an aging Xplornet satellite is retired sometime next year. And all throughout the North, the data that is available is expensive and capped.
There is a great divide in Canada, made all the more apparent by the pandemic, which has forced so many of us to work, learn, meet, and even legislate remotely. When I join a Zoom meeting from home, I do so with speeds that regularly top 500 Mbps. But, as of 2018, 58 percent of rural and 65 percent of First Nations households in this country have no option for high-speed internet; only 15 percent of remote households can access the minimum CRTC standards. True broadband still doesn’t exist anywhere in Nunavut, which is the only jurisdiction in Canada without a direct fibre optic connection (though one is at last in the works, by way of Greenland).
The long-standing and growing gulf between Canada’s digital haves and have-nots harms health care, mental well-being, remote learning, economic opportunities, tourism, and basic democratic participation for far too many. It also impacts enough federal ridings in every province and territory that it could swing an election, if only it were made a defining issue.
The presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden has sucked up a lot of oxygen, with our news ecosystem giving plenty of attention to the gong show that is the debate over the United States Postal Service. The USPS connects Americans in a way no other institution can, and it’s absurd that this connective tissue has become a political lightning rod in the run‑up to November. But, outside of northern media outlets, far too little attention has been given to the absurdity that is our own broken connection.
I am increasingly unconvinced the United States can ever bridge its deep political divides, but we are in a position to bring Canadians together in a truly transformative way. The issue of broadband service — whether delivered through dedicated satellites or much-needed fibre or something entirely new — deserves debate here that is no less vigorous and public than the controversy around the postal service in Washington. Just imagine if “broadband” is the word on every MP’s lips after the September Throne Speech, whether they find themselves on Parliament Hill or on the campaign trail.
In its final report, Canada’s Communications Future: Time to Act, the Broadcasting and Tele-communications Legislative Review called on Ottawa to “foster innovation and investment in high-quality, advanced connectivity in all regions of Canada, including urban, rural, and remote areas.” That was in late January, before COVID‑19 aggravated a pre-existing condition and made the recommendations of the six-member panel all the more urgent. If we’re going to spend our way out of this pandemic, as it seems we might try, let’s at least spend what’s necessary to finally connect us all.