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Plan for satellite internet in Manitoba First Nations may not benefit everyone, chief says

The Manitoba government says it’s spending $100,000 from its criminal property forfeiture fund to bring high-speed internet service to several northern First Nations — a move one of the community’s chiefs says may not benefit everyone.

The upgrades through Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet service, will connect people living in eight communities with virtual court appearances, victim services, crisis responders, teams related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and other community supports, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in a Tuesday news release. 

The changes will connect the broader community with education, training and programming and improve access to virtual court appearances.

The upgrades will also allow First Nations safety officers to connect with other policing agencies and transfer information, evidence and intelligence electronically, the release said.

The province said the initiative was done in collaboration with the Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba.

The satellite internet technology will also allow people to remotely access Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak’s youth healing lodge, which will allow those who have experienced tragic events to have better access to the support they need, the release said. 

But Heidi Cook, chief of Misipawistik Cree Nation — which is among the communities the province said was selected for the satellite internet systems — said she’s disappointed she wasn’t consulted about the decision, which she said will undercut her community’s efforts to build out its own internet service.

A woman with long dark hair wearing beaded earrings and a black shirt smiles.
Chief Heidi Cook from Misipawistik Cree Nation says the plan to bring Starlink satellite internet to her community will undercut its efforts to build out its own fibre internet service. (Submitted by Heidi Cook)

“It kneecaps our local provider and devalues the investments that we’ve made in getting the fibre,” Cook said over the phone on Tuesday, adding the announcement is likely “a really great thing” for other remote communities.

“It just makes it that much harder for us to raise the revenues to complete the network.”

The other communities included in the initiative are Chemawawin Cree Nation, Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Mosakahiken Cree Nation, Bunibonibee Cree Nation, Northlands Denesuline First Nation, Shamattawa First Nation and Tataskweyak Cree Nation.

Province didn’t select communities: spokesperson

Cook said her community has spent years and millions of dollars to improve its local internet service using a fibre network that many businesses and offices and the community’s health centre are all on — meaning people in Misipawistik already have some of the benefits touted in the province’s Starlink release.

A spokesperson for Goertzen said in an email on Tuesday the justice minister “had no part in selecting the communities” involved in the project, and that Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak was responsible for co-ordinating participation among First Nations. 

A spokesperson for Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said in an email the organization would “pass on commenting on this.” The Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police did not respond to a request for comment.

In the province’s news release, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said its communities “will greatly benefit from this initiative.”

Settee said the new internet service will introduce opportunities for virtual services including medical consultations, court procedures, education and training and bring benefits “in days, not years” because of the service’s quick setup time.

Gord Schumacher, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police, said in the release the organization was “extremely excited” to be part of the internet initiative.

New system makes expansion harder: chief

Cook said her community already has an agreement with Manitoba Hydro to improve its internet connectivity — a deal it’s been trying to use to access its own fibre strands to invest in its local network, which has about 100 customers.

There are about 1,500 people living in the First Nation and another 400 in the nearby town of Grand Rapids, she said.

“We have local service delivery, we have local technicians. Our prices are better than Starlink. So we’ve been trying to keep up so that we can at least provide the service locally,” she said.

Cook said some in the community have gotten Starlink systems of their own because, while Misipawistik’s network distributes internet access mainly through a radio signal from a tower to receivers on people’s homes, trees and vegetation near some houses currently prevent the signal from getting there. 

Those homes are the First Nation’s next priority for bringing fibre-based internet once it raises the money to complete its network — a task she said becomes a lot more difficult with more Starlink systems in the mix.

“It just makes it harder for us to raise revenue to complete our network when we have to compete with Starlink,” Cook said.

The money used for the internet initiative comes from Manitoba’s criminal property forfeiture fund, which since 2011 has distributed more than $26 million to law enforcement agencies and community initiatives, the province’s release said.

Manitoba law allows the government to seize assets that are the proceeds of a crime or were used to commit one, even if the person involved hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

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