British Columbia

Life changes instantly as cell service switched on in Ahousaht

Life quickly changed in the remote community of Ahousaht, on an island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, when cell service was switched on for the first time.

Service for the small Indigenous community was activated on Dec. 1

Ahousaht, on Flores Island, is one of B.C.'s largest coastal First Nation communities. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Classes done for the day, students stream out of Ahousaht's high school and onto the sidewalk.

Like their counterparts across the country, many of the teens immediately bury their faces in their cellphones.

But in this Indigenous community of 900 on an isolated island off the rugged west coast of B.C., it's a brand new experience because the service was activated on Dec. 1.

"I was happy I could send text messages and not use my Wi-Fi," one of the students, Corby Frank, said two days later.

Jeremy Sam noticed a change right away in other students' behaviour.

"It's different," he said. "Everyone is on their phone more."

Ahousaht's new cell tower was switched on for the first time in early December. (Chris Corday/CBC)

New challenge for teachers

Teacher Ethan Wills now finds himself in the same boat as most Canadian educators.

"When the switch was flicked, you could tell the kids were a little more distracted and a little less attentive to me."

But Wills said there is an upside.

"Ultimately I think it will be a major benefit," he said. "More information coming, more information readily available, is a good thing. We just have to figure out how to navigate around it."

Ahousaht's Deputy Chief Melinda Swan said people across the community were excited when the cell coverage was activated after several years of lobbying for service.

"We're an isolated community, and some people are caught in situations where they need help and a cellphone would help them in our area," she said. The flood of summer tourists, as well as locals, will benefit, she said.

Inside and outside Ahousaht's high school, teens are already glued to their phones. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Faster help for medical needs

Ahousaht resident Gino John said it's now suddenly much easier to arrange medical care for his child who has developmental issues that require frequent medical care.

"I have no landline, and having this benefits being able to email his doctors," he said, holding his child's hand by the side of the gravel road that runs through the community.

But Ahousaht hasn't been entirely off the grid. Years before cell service, VHF radios ruled, and continue to be a significant mode of communication.

Residents communicate on a specific channel, where a listener can hear people asking about boat rides to Tofino, or even someone selling fresh baked cupcakes and turnovers.

For decades, the most common way to communicate with others around the community was via VHF radio, which many people say they will continue to use despite the new cell service. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The two-way radios are in almost every home, in vehicles and many people carry portables as they venture out.

One man walking down the road pointed to his radio saying someone was just talking about a wild animal on the loose.

"There's a cougar wandering around, a cougar!" he exclaimed before continuing his walk.

But cell service means the radios will be used less.

On a tour of the harbour on a boat used for search and rescue, emergency co-ordinator Alec Dick said the new cell service should help keep people safe on the ocean.

"Your highway is a paved highway. Ours is a water highway," he said, explaining how people here jump in a boat like people in the city use their cars.

But the local waters with rocky islets and open Pacific Ocean to the west are sometimes dangerous.

Ahousaht's emergency operations co-ordinator Alec Dick says finally having cell coverage could help save lives in a marine emergency. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Search and rescue benefits

The community jumped into action in 2015 when a whale watching boat, the Leviathan II, sank. Six people died, but Ahousaht rescuers saved 21 others. 

Cell service wasn't available, causing co-ordination problems with authorities in Tofino, where the hospital and other emergency services are based.

"It'll make it quicker to communicate with the people we need to communicate with," said Dick, who is pleased it adds another layer of protection for people in the community and on the water.

The tower was put up by Telus at a cost of about $500,000, part of an ongoing program to help connect 178 Indigenous communities across the sprawling province. 

Telus spent $500,000 to build Ahousaht's cell tower, which is located in the middle of the community. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Expensive to build cell towers

About 90 per cent of the Indigenous communities in B.C. now have cell service, but the expense of building towers means isolated areas with small numbers of people still lack coverage.

A Telus executive said millions of dollars have already been invested, but it's expensive to service long stretches of lightly travelled highways that would generate little additional revenue for phone companies.

"Getting from community to community you'll see some of the highways still have gaps in terms of connectivity, and we're working on that," said vice-president of consumer health Juggy Sihota. "We're looking at government on how we can work together to close those gaps."

Back in Ahousaht, people are quickly getting used to the new service.

"I'm just going to text my mom," said Xavier Smith, who wants to tell her he's been interviewed by CBC.

And to prove it he takes a selfie with the visiting news crew on his phone and sends it off to her. 

About the Author

Greg Rasmussen

National Reporter

Greg Rasmussen is a National Reporter for CBC news based in Vancouver. He's covered news stories across Canada and around the world for more than two decades. Follow him @CBCGreg on twitter.