September 19, 2020

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Bickering scuttles $55-M internet project for northern Manitoba

OTTAWA — A dispute between two Indigenous groups has prompted the Trudeau government to pull the plug on a multimillion-dollar project to install broadband internet to northern Manitoba, considered the worst area outside the territories for internet connectivity.

After two years of work, and likely millions of dollars spent, Industry Canada gave notice Tuesday it will not proceed with the $55.5-million Wekitowak project to connect First Nations.

The federal government argued a larger Internet fund, which will be launched soon, is a faster way for reserves to get connected to broadband. It rejected requests from the band council that's spearheading the project to try to get chiefs back on board.

"It's not the happiest day; that’s for sure," said Jeremy McKay, a lawyer for Mathias Colomb First Nation in northern Manitoba, which was the driving force behind the Wekitowak project.

Premier of Manitoba Brian Pallister and Navdeep Bains, Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development wear star blankets given to them by members of northern first nation community leaders at a news conference announcing funding by the governments for high-speed Internet infrastructure in the north, at press conference in 2018.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Premier of Manitoba Brian Pallister and Navdeep Bains, Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development wear star blankets given to them by members of northern first nation community leaders at a news conference announcing funding by the governments for high-speed Internet infrastructure in the north, at press conference in 2018.

In 2018, Premier Brian Pallister joined federal Industry Minister Navdeep Bains to announce a joint $55.5-million fund to connect 72 remote communities across the province by March 2021.

Weeks before that announcement, Ottawa merged two competing bids; both had a mix of First Nations support. However, the partnership dissolved within two months.

One bid, Clear Sky Connections, had the endorsement of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and the support of some reserves that felt they’d be beholden to a private Internet company under the Wekitowak project.

Ottawa favoured the Wekitowak bid, arguing it would be cheaper because it was partnered with RFNow of Brandon, which would cover construction costs in exchange for rights to provide broadband for the first decade.

Business partners of Clear Sky Indigenous Network company celebrate the joint venture of three companies, DIG (Distinct Infrastructure Group), CSC (Clear Sky Connections) and BCN (Broadband Communications North) that was to bring high speed internet to First Nations and surrounding communities across Manitoba at a press conference in 2018.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Business partners of Clear Sky Indigenous Network company celebrate the joint venture of three companies, DIG (Distinct Infrastructure Group), CSC (Clear Sky Connections) and BCN (Broadband Communications North) that was to bring high speed internet to First Nations and surrounding communities across Manitoba at a press conference in 2018.

On Tuesday, Industry Canada told Wekitowak officials it had deemed the project no longer eligible for money from the Connect to Innovate fund.

Ottawa said reserves could instead be connected via the Universal Broadband Fund, a $1.7-billion grant program announced by the Trudeau government, which has yet to start.

The Liberals say they want to expedite the 10-year program, given how many Canadians are working from home due to the pandemic.

McKay said the Wekitowak bid is "inherently optimistic" it can be a part of the new plan.

A complicating factor is that the group may have lost the chance to lean on Manitoba Hydro.

The province had agreed to allow Wekitowak and Clear Sky Connections to use Hydro’s dormant optic-fibre cables, meaning they only had to link communities to Hydro's main lines.

However, a recent request-for-proposals for private access to those fibre-optic lines could suggest the arrangement is no longer valid.

This fall, the Free Press published internal records from Industry Canada that show the original 2018 plan was plagued by problems.

Firstly, chiefs were confused about which bids they’d endorsed, because two bids had joined forces, were renamed and then separated.

Officials had to continually get the consent of chiefs, who rotated during band elections over the two years. An attempt at mediation failed.

Secondly, Indigenous Service Canada separately gave Clear Sky funding for a smaller fibre-optic project near Thompson, prompting outcry from the Wekitowak bid.

As recently as two weeks ago, McKay said Wekitowak was urging Ottawa to get everyone back at the table to resolve the dispute.

"We acknowledged there were significant obstacles that needed to be navigated, before the Wekitowak project could truly be viable," said McKay. "From our perspective, (the federal government) participated in creating those challenges, and therefore they needed to be at the table, in terms of finding a solution."

For a year, the community pleaded to meet with Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef or her predecessor.

Instead, Ottawa kept asking Wekitowak this summer for documentation. It insisted it couldn’t proceed until all reserves were back on board.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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