London

London library's Wi-Fi hotspot lending program axed after heated debate

A debate about Wi-Fi lending at the London Public Library resulted in a heated debate in council chambers, giving Londoners a taste of what issues are near and dear to city politicians as budget deliberations get underway.

Coun. Arielle Kayabaga said the motion was 'anti-immigrant, anti-poverty, anti-women and anti-children'

Coun. Arielle Kayabaga said she was 'disappointed' the program's funding was up for debate, despite it being a pilot project that was funded by the province. 1:16

A discussion about Wi-Fi lending from the public library resulted in a heated debate in council chambers, giving Londoners a taste of what issues are near and dear to city politicians as budget deliberations get underway.

At Thursday's Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, which was council's first formal multi-year budget debate, nine businesses cases were up for discussion in an attempt to limit a property tax hike. 

The London Public Library's request of $188,000 to continue lending Wi-fi hotspots, which allows people access to high-speed internet at home, was ultimately shut down, but not before tensions rose.

"I'm really disappointed to even see this business case on here," said Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga, who spoke about how significant libraries and their resources had been to her when she was a newcomer. 

The lending program, which consists of 75 hotspots for loan to the public, is geared toward breaking down the digital divide between those who can afford regular high-speed internet and those who cannot, many who are students, seniors and newcomers to Canada.

As of November 2019, the hotspots have been borrowed 1,096 times and have more than 160 holds on them, according to the library's business case. 

"It's very emotional for me to even talk about it — to see this anti-immigrant, anti-poverty, anti-women, anti-children type-motion ... that's how I take it, " Kayabaga said. 

That's when Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis, who is a member of the library board, stepped in and asked council to remove her comments.

"It's disrespectful of the discussion in general to impinge or impugn what she thinks was the thought process behind the boards' members decision on this," he said. 

"This is for me what this motion translates to and I will not take it back," she said firmly, assuring she was not speculating the board's thought process.  

Councillors took a recess and when they returned, under bylaw chair Coun. Josh Morgan put up to question if Kayabaga should be ordered to leave the meeting after her remarks which Lewis did not accept as point of personal privilege.

The motion failed 11 to four with Coun. Van Holst, Lewis, Squire and Van Meerbergen voting to have Kayabaga removed. Since this was a budget meeting, that would've meant Kayabaga would have had to sit it out the other five budget deliberation meetings.  

The actual Wi-Fi hotspot debate

The WiFi hotspot lending program was intended to break down the digital divide between those who can afford high-speed-internet access and those who can't. The Library's project was catered toward students who may not have the technology, newcomers to Canada, seniors as well as adults who cannot afford it. (Creative Commons)

Before councillors reached the decision of not funding the Wi-Fi hotspot lending program, they engaged in plenty of conversation on the topic. 

"I heard Coun. Kayabaga's words, but as an immigrant, I also felt her words," Ward 9 Coun. Anna Hopkins said.

"Libraries mean a lot not only to immigrants, but to the community. It's a place where you feel that you belong,"  she added. 

Lewis argued that while he values the program, he's confident that sponsors will step up to ensure that it continues.

Since it's launch in 2018, the program had been funded provincially as a pilot project.

"It has never been in our municipal budget until today and to imply that we are cutting a service is just not factually true," Lewis said. 

Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire agreed that there are bigger priorities for a public library. 

"Would I like to have internet from home? Would other people like to have internet from home that was from the library? I'm sure they would, but is that the responsibility of our library system? I say no," he said. 

In the end, nine councillors voted to cut it from the budget, while six wanted to keep it. 

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