Manitoba

Indigenous company disconnected from talks on bringing internet, cellphone service to remote communities: firm

First Nation leaders are feeling disconnected after the Manitoba government dialled up faster internet and cell service for rural and remote communities without them.

Indigenous-owned Clear Sky Connections says province's consultation before Xplornet deal was inadequate

The CEO of an Indigenous-owned and operated telecommunications company said they were not adequately consulted before the province reached a deal with Xplornet. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

First Nation leaders are feeling disconnected after the Manitoba government dialled up faster internet and cell service for rural and remote communities without them.

The board of directors at Clear Sky Connections, an Indigenous-owned telecommunications company, couldn't get a meeting with provincial officials, the company's CEO Lisa Clarke said.

Clarke said the company is trying to bring speedy internet to First Nations. She said they were not adequately consulted before a deal was struck with Xplornet, a New Brunswick-based internet service provider.

"I think there's still an opportunity for the province to meet with the First Nations and to find a way forward that's not a slap in the face to our communities," she said.

The arrangement with Xplornet will bring nearly 30 First Nations and approximately 270 rural and northern communities online with high-speed broadband services, while 350 communities will receive cellphone service for the first time, the province announced last week.

It's expected more than 125,000 underserved Manitobans will benefit. 

First Nation communities want a say

Xplornet will use thousands of kilometres of existing fibre optic cables owned by Manitoba Hydro Telecom.

Since the broadband network runs through First Nation lands, Clarke said the affected communities should have a meaningful say in their use.

She added the province should have met with their board of directors, which includes chiefs from seven Manitoba First Nations.

"Announcing a partnership without [First Nation] consultation or consent denies their ability to choose who they want to work with. This also demonstrates the government's lack of commitment to engaging with Indigenous peoples to maintain and preserve their rights to self-determination," Clear Sky said in a news release.

A partner of Clear Sky put in a bid to take over third-party management of the broadband network through a request for qualifications in 2019, but was not successful, Clarke said.

As such, neither Clear Sky, nor the business partner, took part in last August's request for proposal, which was won by Xplornet.

Before selecting Xplornet, the province said it led a open competitive process that welcomed all proponents.

"During the process, department officials met with a number of communities, community leadership and First Nations leadership to explain the process, listen to feedback and provide assurances that previous commitments made to communities for fibre access would not be impacted," the government said in a statement.

Clear Sky was still permitted to connect Nelson House on Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation to the fibre network last year, even as other new activity related to the existing network was put on hold as the request for proposal was underway.

David MacKay, executive director of the Coalition of Manitoba Internet Service Providers, previously told CBC News he was concerned by a large telecommunications company taking over Hydro's line, as it may impact access to the fibre cable that several local medium- to small-sized telecommunication companies require.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said local providers should have been prioritized.

"When it comes to expanding internet, cell service in rural Manitoba, northern Manitoba, Indigenous communities around the province, we know that involving those local players is one of the key ways that we can ensure that you get fast speeds and low costs," he said.

Clarke said she's hopeful Xplornet will be a willing partner with smaller providers like Clear Sky. 

The province said that Xplornet has committed to working with First Nation communities and directly with First Nation-led businesses to improve connectivity in their communities. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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