Final arguments in a class-action lawsuit against Bell Mobility for charging northerners fees for 911 services they don’t have access to were heard Friday in Yellowknife.
The case is now in the hands of Justice Ronald Veale, who will decide if Bell is obliged to pay damages to the nearly 30,000 customers in N.W.T., Nunavut and Yukon outside Whitehorse affected by the class-action lawsuit launched by Yellowknife resident James Anderson in 2007.
Up until 2009, Bell customers in the North saw a 75 cent a month charge listed on their cellphone bills for 911 service. Veale asked a Bell director this week if the 75-cent fee is still buried somewhere in customers' monthly bills, but he didn't give a definitive answer, saying only that it is no longer charged separately.
Whitehorse is the only community in the North with 911 service. In every other community, residents must instead dial a seven-digit local phone number for immediate fire, medical or RCMP assistance.
Anderson's lawyer Keith Landy said Bell should never have charged Northerners a 911 fee for what he called a "phantom service," while Bell’s lawyers said the case should be dismissed because governments are responsible for providing emergency services.
Landy said, in a contract, when you pay for something, you get something in return.
"Bell is really discriminating against the residents of the North, because they are some of the most vulnerable people in the country," he said. "They're being charged for a fee for a service that they don't get, so in essence, Bell is profiting from that."
Landy called it a criminal action of Bell to not provide a live operator when Northerners call 911. He said it causes a critical delay, putting people in further danger.
One of Bell's lawyers called Landy's comments "over the top" and "wholly inappropriate."
Anderson's side relied on the testimony of Iain Grant, who did a research report on 911 service. He called Bell's practice of charging a fee for nonexistent service an anomaly in Canada.
Brad Dixon, a lawyer for Bell, called Grant's research misleading, confusing and unreliable, saying it was based on hearsay, and pointed to errors and omissions in his report.
Bell maintained that it's living up to its contracts with customers to route 911 calls to whatever service local governments provide.
Bell has said that it charges all its customers in Canada the fee with no distinction because the phone is mobile and can be used in locations with a 911 service.
But Bell does not charge the fee in Newfoundland and Labrador even though that province has a 911 service. Bell said that decision was for business reasons.
Landy argued that Anderson was forced to sign a "take it or leave it" contract with Bell and he couldn't change the terms.
Bell maintained that Anderson knew he had to pay the fee and to this day is still a Bell customer, paying for 911 service.