Charlie Flowers grew up in Rigolet. As the son of a commercial salmon fisherman, he spent his summers at their family’s salmon fishing lodge located a few miles outside of the Happy-Valley-Goose Bay. “Although there was no running water or electricity, and you were sometimes miles away from the next nearest family, it was a great way to live,” Flowers remembers.
Rigolet, in the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut, is the southernmost Inuit community in the world. Located on the north coast of Labrador, the community of approximately 300 people sits at the mouth of Lake Melville.
The outdoors has traditionally held a special place for the people of Rigolet, who spent much of their time appreciating its wonder. Life in Rigolet has changed significantly. Flowers, now 36 years old, has witnessed the introduction of cable TV, water and sewage, and the internet. When the commercial salmon fishery collapsed, families no longer made the annual summer-long migrations to their fishing homes, visiting for short stretches of time. To keep themselves entertained, they spent much more time at the gym, youth centres, and on the internet to keep entertained.
Many more conversations revolve around questions of access. Unlike Canada’s urban areas, people in places like Rigolet lack choice: there’s only one service provider offered – Bell Aliant. And even that service isn’t adequate. Download speeds are 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds are 0.5 Mbps. According to Canada’s 2019 Budget, download internet speeds of 1 Mbps are “insufficient speed to meaningfully participate online. Allows for basic browsing and email service.” You need a minimum of five Mbps to stream videos like those on online news sites.
According to the CRTC announced that all Canadian homes should have access to broadband speeds of at least 50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. For context, a minimum of three Mbps is needed to watch Netflix in Standard Definition (SD).
But in Flowers’ experience even those low speeds aren’t always accessible. “There are even times when we will lose our internet connection for a day or several days at a time.” When that happens, Flowers says it can be incredibly frustrating.
For instance, on Sept. 6, 2018, 3,500 subscribers in Labrador West were without internet or phone access. The blackout lasted until the evening of Sept. 8, when internet was mainly restored, but still not running at normal speeds. What happened?
There are no local newspapers in Rigolet, but there is a regional paper called the Labradorian that is published once a week. People also get their news through Province-wide shows on NTV and CBC. However, a study titled Canada’s Digital Divides predicts that by 2025 “there might be no local broadcast television stations in Canada.”
“For Rigolet-specific information, most people share that news on Facebook through the Rigolet Bulletin Board,” says Flowers. And access still depends on the iInternet.
As for cell phone coverage, you might as well forget about it, for now. Flowers is working with the University of Guelph to create an app called eNuk. The app allows community members to record and share data while on land. Word of mouth was the method of communication for many years, but Flowers says this is sometimes slow and poses problems especially when sharing safety information. The app allows members of the community to share this information instantaneously and with more security.
Dan Gillis, professor at Guelph, is also working on the app and has been going to Rigolet for at least three years now. During various conversations with people from Labrador, he has come to realize that people are still paying incredulous prices for Internet—between $90 to $100 for service—but only promised 1.5 Mbps download. However, Gillis says that getting those speeds isn’t even a reality. While they do have internet, it is not fast and it doesn’t always work. “Anybody that lives in these remote communities, and if not all of the north, and also existing in rural communities in southern Ontario and across Canada, it means that those individuals, those families, can’t necessarily get the same kind of information that you or I take for granted.”
According to Gillis, this means that anything the community wants to download or access online becomes a challenge.
The Rigolet access reality isn’t an anomaly. Moving westward, communities in Nunavut face the same problems.
Billowing winds and long, harsh white winter, people connected to nature and their land. That is the stereotypical depiction of life in Nunavut, Canada’s arctic territory.
But in an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, photojournalist Cody Punter tried to bring Rankin Inlet, Nunavut’s more human face the life.
“Contrary to typically bleak depictions of the Canadian Arctic, I discovered a tight-knit community that cherished the joys of summer as much as a suburban family escaping for a weekend at the cottage. Witnessing people barbecuing, fishing, playing baseball, swimming in lakes or enjoying outdoor concerts felt so familiar. And yet, the fact such images are so alien to most Canadians living within 100 kilometres of the American border shows how little attention we pay to Canada’s North,” reads part of the op-ed.
Punter spent the past two summers living in the community of about 3,000 people. After working at Northern News Service Limited (NNSL), Yellowknife, Punter went east to fill in as editor for the Kivalliq News for the summer.
In the tiny community, sandwiched between Chesterfield Inlet and Arviat, on the northwestern Hudson Bay, the freelance journalist and Toronto native delivered the news to Kivalliq.
Punter moved to Yellowknife in the spring of 2013 for two years working as a reporter first and then editor. Eventually, he saw an opening at Kivalliq News and got hired there.
Kivalliq News is a weekly paper; run, reported and operated entirely by one person. Punter was hired as a replacement, to be the sole employee.
“I’m one reporter covering all the stories, so you decide what you want to cover,” Punter says when asked what beat he covers.
The paper delivers news to the entire Kivalliq region, but exists behind a paywall online. The biggest news source is CBC, Punter guesses.
For Punter, it is clear that readership and demand for news is high. “I would have people come up to me and talk to me about stories I’ve written,” Punter says adding that the community aspect was strong with people wanting to see photos of their children or a story about a relative in the paper.
Punter is quick to add that there is lots of hard news too, including coverage of a mine set to open next year.
There is good television content from CBC and Nunatsiaq, and Nunavut has comparatively decent access to local news Punter says.
But, there is simply no national coverage according to Punter. “That’s just a given because no one is there and no one really cares down south, but that’s a whole different issue.”
While the resources exist, there are logistical barriers to access such as delivery, paywalls, bandwidth, etc.
“Internet access is horrible, the bandwidth is horrible,” Punter says, commenting on how it is a constant complaint among people.
It is not media literacy that’s the issue, media literacy is a national problem, says Punter.
According to a CRTC report from 2010, 83.5 percent of households in Northwest Territories have internet access; 100 percent in the Yukon, but only 27 percent of communities in Nunavut.
On March 19, the Federal Budget 2019 was announced, and in it reflected the growing need for high speed internet access across the country. Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, announced in a tweet that that new plan promises all Canadians, regardless of location, high-speed internet by 2030.
High-speed internet access is a necessity – not a luxury. A new national plan will ensure every Canadian home and small business, no matter where they are, will have access to high-speed internet by 2030.
— Bill Morneau (@Bill_Morneau) March 19, 2019
The government has declared high-speed internet is “no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity,” and has pledged “$5 billion to $6 billion in new investments in rural broadband over the next 10 years.”
A 2016 CIRA report groups Nunavut and the Northwest Territories together, and while it reports that the average speeds are 15.4 Mbps, the report notes that the experiences of many will be “well below the 15.4 Mbps.”
What Punter will say is that the limited bandwidth and the high cost of Internet are barriers to news consumption. “People are always speaking out about how shit the internet is, that’s a common thing.”
He uses a hypothetical example of a large family that has multiple children. If a child wants to watch Netflix, the data could be gone for the month. “Are you going to consume news as much? Probably not.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a lack of will or understanding of the media,” Punter says. “In my opinion, the resources are there, but there’s definitely barriers to access in terms of internet speed and just limits on bandwidth.” Punter says that if you watch a news video online, it could consume your entire Internet.
In large cities, Wi-Fi is taken for granted. “There’s not much free Wi-Fi up there. You can’t just go to Starbucks…there is no Starbucks,” Punter laughs. “There’s not places where you can go to get free access to information.”