At some point in 2012, Elijah — who requested his name be changed to protect his identity — was living in Vancouver with his infant daughter and decided it was time for a big move. The following year the duo made the cross-country journey to Toronto to settle in the city’s Gay Village, around the intersection of Church and Wellesley streets.
As a single parent who was still searching for a job, Elijah had to make difficult choices. Although the internet was a gateway for accessing job posts and conducting a thorough search, Elijah had to find housing and put food on the table. He quickly discovered that internet access, for them, was a luxury.
“Choosing internet has been the choice between choosing food for myself or choosing to remain connected, and there have been times where I’ve chosen to not have internet.”
Elijah felt alienated. Communication with friends and family became difficult, and finding a job was near impossible.
“Being able to sit down and crank out like several hours of resumes suddenly becomes an impossible thing, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and the cycle of not having internet,” Elijah says. “How can I afford internet if I don’t have a job?”
For an entire year, Elijah went without home internet. With most news being online, especially as it happens, Elijah felt excluded from information about their community and world. It was inaccessible.
Elijah uses the example of a natural disaster, saying that if there was an earthquake in Vancouver they wouldn’t know it was happening.
“Basically I had no idea what was going on at any point during that year because there was no way to research that,” Elijah says. “News print doesn’t stay up to date. It is printed that day, so when you get that newspaper, it is old news…it’s useless after that day.”
The main barrier for Elijah, and many other Torontonians, is financial. In 2016, the CRTC declared internet a basic right as well as an affordability issue. Yet, many residents are still forced to choose between access to the internet and other basic necessities, like shelter or food.
A survey released in 2016 of 400 testimonials across Canada, conducted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), reports that 232 respondents felt that the “extremely high” price for internet access was unaffordable, but cut back elsewhere because it was a necessity.
Statistics Canada found that 59 percent of households with the lowest income of $30,000 or less do not have internet access, whereas only two percent do not in the highest income quartile.
Smart cities, a city that uses data and technologies to improve quality of life, are gaining traction globally. In the United States, 66 percent of cities have invested in smart city technologies. In 2018, Canada ran a $300 million Smart Cities Challenge, which sought a community-level approach to solving problems using data and connected technology, and according to the IESE Cities in Motion Index, Toronto is the eighth smartest city in the world.
However, unlike many of its Western counterparts, free public wifi, on the streets or on public transit, is hard to come by. In 2011, Barcelona launched Barcelona Wifi, providing free Wi-Fi across the city, Helsinki, Finland offers a network of hotspots in public areas across the capital, and New York City invested in LinkNYC, a network of kiosks replacing 7,500 payphones across NYC, providing free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, and charging stations.
While Toronto recently invested in free Wi-Fi in subway stations across the city, it has yet to be offered outside in public spaces, on the GO train, or in subway tunnels.
Marie Aspiazu is a digital rights campaigner at Open Media, a Vancouver-based nonprofit seeking to advance peoples digital rights in Canada, and worldwide. She says that Canadians are falling behind, not only from the digital divide between rural and urban broadband access levels, but also internet prices.
“Our mobile phones, we pay some of the highest prices in the world for middle-of-the-road service. So this is something that is really important for our economy and for us to catch up to other developed countries,” Aspiazu says. “It’s more important than ever because we have an election coming up, so I think the most important part right now is to make sure that no matter who wins, we make sure that this issue is top of mind.”
Canada has been dubbed the highest paying country for internet by the CRTC. According to Statistics Canada, “Canadian households spent an average of $2,246 on communication devices and services in 2016, up 2.7% from 2015.”
According to a 2016 report Canada pays the highest mobile price averaging $41.08 for 150 minutes compared to high ranking European countries, like Germany, at $17.15 per month.
Prices continue to rise. In February, major telecom companies Telus, Bell, Shaw and Rogers increased their prices, which the companies said, was due to high demand.
Beginning on Feb. 25, Telus will increase regular monthly phone rates according to a Telus Internet Service and rate update.
Aside from high prices, the CRTC report from Feb. 20 found that a “significant portion of Canadians are experiencing misleading or aggressive sales practices by the Service Providers.”
“We’ll be studying the report in depth but we’re happy to see the CRTC took note of several recommendations we made, and we look forward to continuing to working constructively with them on the issue,” wrote Caroline Audet, Senior Manager, Government Sales at Bell Business Markets, in an email response.
On New Year’s Eve, Joy Zylstra received a phone bill from Bell for $1,975.
The racked up bill is a result of long-distance text messages to the United States from her daughter’s cell phone. What Zylstra doesn’t understand is why she was never contacted about abnormal charges to her plan. Zylstra first discussed her story in an interview with CBC on Feb. 28, 2019.
But, Zylstra says, she didn’t get any alerts. And on March 1, Bell abruptly cancelled the entire family’s phone plan.
Bell claims to have sent warning emails to her husband, Dave. However, Zylstra says that he checked all inboxes and no email was found. He received a text message on Feb. 15 saying $318 was overdue, and without payment by March 1, the family’s phone would be cut off. Within a couple of hours though, their phones were cut off and Bell demanded $1,000 before turning their services back on.
After borrowing the money from her father-in-law, the family paid the company. “He put it on his credit card, so now he’s also being charged interest because we can’t afford to pay him back right now just like we couldn’t afford to pay Bell,” Zylstra says. “It’s costing everybody money in our lives now.”
After going public with the issue, because Zylstra says Bell wouldn’t cooperate privately, the Zylstra’s discovered that sending thousands of text messages to the United States doesn’t cost Bell anywhere close to the $2,000 they were charged.
“They are just charging us that,” says Joy. “They are robbing us.”
Aspiazu says that it is one thing to acknowledge Canada’s digital divide, but we will not see change until the government implements strong policy.
The Federal government announced the Connecting Families initiative which began in 2017, a $13.2 million program that will provide families with high speed internet for $10 per month. However, only families receiving the maximum Child Care Benefit are eligible, and randomly selected to participate.
“Give rural communities and community broadband projects more funding as opposed to giving more funding to well established players, for example,” Aspiazu says. “The cost is a problem and poses an obstacle to accessing the internet even though it is available.”
According to Aspiazu, many lower income families strictly have phone internet and no home internet. She says that the average Canadian uses about two gigabytes per month on their phones. “So imagine if you just have your phone and you don’t have home internet, you definitely have to pick and choose what you do with those gigabytes of data, which definitely affects your access to information.”
This digital divide keeps people in an economic cycle of poverty. Without access to information including news, people are excluded from vital information and being part of a democratic conversation.
Aside from being a single parent, Elijah is also a volunteer with ACORN, recently worked a full time job as a barista at Starbucks, and is an online student to become a firefighter.
“If I didn’t have as many bills to pay, I could cut down the hours I was at work and focus on my kid and school,” Elijah says. “I’m burning out.”
Almost 60 percent of their salary goes to rent, and Elijah says that adding another $70 for internet is asking a lot. But they can’t go without it.
As a transgendered person, Elijah feels that with today’s political climate internet is imperative.
“[Without internet], I would have never found out that the conservative party was debating whether or not I was a living, breathing person that had rights,” Elijah says, referring to the provincial conservative parties decision in November to debate whether the party should recognize gender identity.
“That is crucial right now, we are in a time where every day I find something worse happening, every day there is worse and worse news. I cannot be cut off from that. I need to know what’s happening in my world.”