If everything goes as planned, by next summer, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (Nelson House) will have robust, reliable high-speed internet, just like every other developed region of the world.
The current internet infrastructure there, not unlike many northern Manitoba First Nations, is not much better than dial-up speeds from the 1990s.
"We couldn’t even download the promotion video," said Lisa Clarke, the CEO of Clear Sky Connections, an organization owned by 40 Manitoba First Nations that organized the project after 10 years of effort.
Clarke said much of the close-to-$3-million cost for the project has come from Indigenous Services Canada. Broadband Communications North, an enterprising rural internet service provider that has been involved in all sorts of innovative network projects in First Nations and rural communities across the province, is a 50 per cent partner.
The network will grant Nisichawayasihk access to the digital era. The fact that it’s 2019 and it’s just happening now is a sad state of affairs for this province.
What may be even sadder is that almost two years ago, more than 30 northern First Nations were promised that same kind of community connection by a federal government program that had $33.5 million in funding ready to be spent.
But because of bureaucratic fumbling, political squabbling and corporate jealousies, none of that money has been disbursed and not one of those communities has moved any further ahead in their desire to participate in the mainstream digital economy the rest of us take for granted.
While Clear Sky and Clarke likely deserve to feel some sense of accomplishment in getting the Nisichawayasihk construction project going, they may also deserve a certain amount of credit for stalling the rest of the work.
Back in January 2018, Connect to Innovate, a $500-million project funded by Innovation, Science and Economic Development, announced that Wekitowak Communications was awarded the $35.5 million for the northern Manitoba project. Nationally, only Northwestel out of Nunavut received a larger grant.
Wekitowak is a 49-51 joint venture between a Virden-based internet service provider called RF Now and some northern First Nations.
Clear Sky also applied for the funding, but lost out to Wekitowak, and for a few different reasons, a concerted effort was made to get Clear Sky and Wekitowak to become partners in the project, but that has not worked.
The fact that Wekitowak has non-Indigenous ownership has caused plenty of pushback and it is believed officials in Ottawa have succumbed to the bad optics.
But it has led to confusion and acrimony — some chiefs support Wekitowak and others Clear Sky — and countless meetings between the technical people, community leaders and federal bureaucrats that have not produced a resolution.
(Some say the federal election has given bureaucrats their best excuse to explain why funding has not been advanced in Manitoba.)
Bureaucrats in charge of Connect to Innovate have said publicly that Wekitowak is leading the project, but privately they have continued to at least give Clear Sky hope that it may be able to get a piece of the action at some point.
Chris Kennedy, the CEO of RF Now, says his company is already out about $3 million for the technical work it has done to plan the networks. He is very frustrated with what has transpired.
"At the end of the day, it’s the communities that are losing out," Kennedy said. "As a business, we have stuck our neck out a long way to try to ensure this works but there has been no funding commitment as of yet, nor do we feel the government is in any rush to make one."
In a recent exchange with the Free Press asking to clarify what the status of the $33.5 million in funding was, the only response from officials from Connect to Innovate was: "We monitor the ongoing progress between the Wekitowak Communications partners, as with all Connect to Innovate projects, and remain supportive of the proposed project the company has submitted for funding."
Still, no funds have flowed.
Clarence Easter, chief of Chemawawin Cree Nation, had been an early Wekitowak supporter, believing it would be the best path to get his community connected.
"Politics has got in the way," Easter said. "It got approved. They should have started the work. We all need internet service in our communities. I’m not sure what the real cause is. It seems like some of the chiefs in the south wanted a piece of the action."
Christian Sinclair, the chief of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, was lucky enough to have the financial wherewithal — and proximity to the Bell MTS network — to be able to make sure all of his band’s public facilities have proper high-speed service on his own.
"It was just a disaster the way they have been trying to roll it out and wasting time," he said. "They’re spinning wheels and there’s too many egos."
Clear Sky does not have the technical expertise in-house to manage a project like Nisichawayasihk, so it relies on third parties who will need to be paid. Clarke said she hopes to start similar projects in Norway House and Cross Lake, but is still scrambling for funds.
Meanwhile, there’s $33.5 million just sitting there in Ottawa.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.