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Lakehead Social Planning Council director Marie Klassen said many people use the computers to access government services. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The federal government has cut funding to its Community Access Program — including more than 20 public internet workstations across northwestern Ontario.

The Lakehead Social Planning Council in Thunder Bay is one of them. 

Director Marie Klassen said many people use the computers to access government services.

"You know the government has embraced and shifted toward electronic delivery of service," Klassen said.

"So, a lot of what people are looking at are exactly those things. So for the government to cut the funding for this program at this time I find really difficult to imagine."

Big impact on small budgets

There are more than 20 Community Access Program sites throughout northwestern Ontario affected by this cut. 

Many of these sites are in public libraries in small communities.

Tamara Needham, the CEO and head librarian at the Marathon Public Library, said the $4,000 cut will have a big impact on the library's budget.

The library will try to find other ways to fund maintenance costs for the computers.  She said the service is in demand, as the five public computers at the Marathon library are in use at least five hours a day.  She doesn't know of anywhere else in the community where computer access is available.

Needham said she doesn't think the federal government understands the impact of cutting free internet service on the most vulnerable in small communities. She added that, when the mill shut down, many laid-off workers had to use the library's public computers to access documents like government forms.  Needham said when people are out of work, they sometimes have to choose to stop their home internet service to save money.

On its website, Industry Canada suggested people use Service Canada locations as an alternative. However, Klassen noted that the small Service Canada site in Thunder Bay would not likely be able to handle the extra traffic, given the high demand for public internet services.

Klassen said the LSPC will do whatever it can to keep its computers running — including seeking funding elsewhere.

Winston Sainnawap uses a public computer at the Social Planning Council office in Victoriaville mall to search for a mining job. He also comes to the office to use Facebook to stay in touch with his family. 

"It's really important because I can't call home because I got no phone card ... so I just use the Internet," Sainnawap said.

The LSPC receives $4,000 dollars a year from the government to keep three computers running, so the decision to cut it without establishing alternative solutions was "really disheartening," Klassen said.

Last year alone, the LSPC counted more than 6,500 visits to its public computers. Most users are between 22 and 54.

Klassen said they need a way to find jobs, housing and government support services.

"We're looking at the group or the sector that would find computers and internet access totally unaffordable," she said.

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It's people like Winston Sainnawap, a user of the public computers at the Lakehead Social Planning Council in Thunder Bay, who will be most affected by the cutbacks to public internet workstations. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Klassen said the computer access centres will feel the pain of the funding cut when equipment starts breaking down — and they need money to fix it.       

According to its website, Industry Canada said it will continue to fund youth internet access programs through internships at community internet sites, as well as its Computers for Schools program.

But Klassen said those initiatives don't help the majority of clients that use the LSPC public computer site, as they are mostly working-age adults.