Feds announce $41M in funding for high-speed internet for Manitoba rural, First Nations communities

More rural communities and many First Nations in Manitoba will soon be connected to high-speed internet, some as soon as this year, through federal government funding announced Wednesday.

St. Boniface-St.Vital MP Dan Vandal, who is the federal minister for northern affairs, announced more than $41 million in funding for 11 projects that will improve connections in at least 93 communities across Manitoba.

Vandal said connecting households to better, faster internet is now essential.

“For rural and remote communities, including many here in Manitoba that do not have access, the pandemic has made life more difficult than other areas of this country,” he said via Zoom. 

The federal government has a goal of connecting 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030, Vandal said.

The funding for the 11 projects announced Wednesday is coming through two federal programs. Four projects will get funding for “backbone infrastructure” through the federal Connect to Innovate program, aimed at bringing high-speed internet to rural and remote communities. 

Another seven projects will get funding through the “rapid response stream” of the federal universal broadband fund, which earmarks money for “shovel-ready projects that will bring high-speed internet to communities by the end of this year,” Vandal said.

Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal, shown here in a 2020 file photo, announced the funding on Wednesday. He said the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how essential high-speed internet connections are in rural communities and remote First Nations. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The northern Manitoba communities of Cross Lake and Norway House First Nations will get more than $16.5 million in funding for connections through the Connect to Innovate program.

Norway House Cree Nation Chief Larson Anderson says the community will contribute another $2.6 million for the project, with services provided by Kici Sipi Communications LP, an Indigenous-run communications network in the First Nation. 

“After 150 years of this segregation, this unique project has united our people and is a step toward true reconciliation in our relationship to the Crown,” said Lee Thomas, executive councillor of Pimicikamak Okimawin and co-president of Kici Sipi Communications LP.

“This infrastructure will bring the world closer to us through communication and technology.”

Significant impact for community: Norway House chief

Asked when he hopes to see Norway House connected, Chief Anderson joked in the best-case scenario, that would happen tomorrow.

“We’ve been working on this for three years plus,” he said. “If everything does go well, we hope six months to a year.”

Timing is also contingent on the upcoming winter weather and co-operation from Manitoba Hydro, he said.

Anderson said the effect of proper internet service will be similar to when it was connected to the rest of Manitoba with road access decades ago.

“We were able to travel out to the rest of the world. I feel this is the same impact — especially for our youth of the nation.”

Jordan Young, vice-president of rural Manitoba internet provide Xplornet, said his company is working with First Telecom to extend fibre connectivity to Ebb and Flow First Nation.

That project got more than $560,000 in funding in Wednesday’s announcement, which was essential to building the network, Young said.

“As it relates to our particular project with Ebb and Flow First Nation, we’re starting construction within two weeks. We’ll have connectivity to the community within the September timeframe.”

Communities ‘in jeopardy of going dark’

Xplornet got another $140,000 through the rapid response funding to provide access for several other communities, including Waywayseecappo First Nation, Ochre River and Dauphin Beach.

Broadband Communications North — an Indigenous non-profit network — got more than $6.5 million in funding to service 16 First Nations communities, including Berens River, Bloodvein, God’s Lake First Nation, Little Grand Rapids, Bunibonibee Cree Nation, Pauingassi First Nation, Pukatawagan, Shamattawa First Nation and Wasagamack First Nation.

“Communities were in jeopardy of going dark if this funding didn’t come through,” said Jason Neepin, Broadband Communications North’s executive director.

RFNow Inc., another internet service provider, will get $9.3 million in funding to provide service to several rural Manitoba communities and First Nations, including Austin, Chemawawin Cree Nation, Miami, Myrtle, St. Claude, Starbuck, and Treherne, among others. 

Westman Communications Group Inc. will also get a total of more than $5.4 million in funding through the rapid response program to connect the communities of Benito, Bowsman, Birch River, Clear Lake, Onanole and Sandy Lake.

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