Who's responsible for getting CBC North on the air in Fort Liard? It's complicated

CBC has been off the air for about a year in Fort Liard, N.W.T. It turns out the CBC isn’t responsible for most of the equipment that sends its signal to many northern residents, and in some cases, it’s not clear who is. 

CBC has been off the air for about a year in a community now facing an outbreak of COVID-19

Each triangle on this map represents a community that's expected to maintain and repair the radio equipment that passes on the CBC signal. Of the 70 sites in Canada, most are in remote, rural communities, and many are in the North. (CBC)

Sylvia Sassie liked to listen to CBC Radio One in her kitchen, her bedroom or her car. She tuned in to the N.W.T. morning show, The Trailbreaker, and to Dehcho Dene, CBC's daily South Slavey language program. 

That all came to a halt about a year ago. 

Sylvia Sassie of Fort Liard, N.W.T. She hasn't been able to listen to CBC over the air for about a year. (Submitted by Sylvia Sassie)

"I didn't know what had happened," she said. "I thought maybe it just went digital?"

Sassie, who lives in Fort Liard, N.W.T., called the CBC in Yellowknife and began exchanging emails with technical staff about how to diagnose the problem.

"I guess it's the wiring or something that's disconnected here," she said. "I was supposed to take pictures [of the radio equipment] but I can't because there's too much snow." 

Fort Liard is now in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak. Six people in the hamlet of 500 have tested positive and the community was put under a 14-day containment order (that is, people were advised not to travel) starting Jan. 16.

The community has two other radio stations: CKLB 101.9, run by Native Communications Society of the NWT; and 95.1, which was recently established as a Christian radio service. 

"I prefer personally to listen to CBC North because they talk about all kinds of things," Sassie said. "What I would really like about this channel is listening to the information on the COVID."

Not 'CBC-owned'

"Unfortunately," said Philippe Aubé, "since this is not CBC-owned infrastructure we are ... limited in the way we can support these issues."

Aubé is the CBC's senior director of transmission operations in Montreal. His department looks after about 750 transmitters across the country. He also looks after CBC-owned satellite receivers in about 70 small, mostly northern locations known as "community-owned rebroadcasters" or CORBs — including Fort Liard. 

As Aubé explains it, decades ago, a program was launched to help small communities take control of transmitters, antennas and radio towers installed for radio. CBC maintained control of the satellite receivers bringing in the signal, but the community — which could be a communications society or the hamlet — took ownership of the transmitter that relays that signal into the community and any other hardware.

'Community-owned rebroadcasters'

Several people interviewed for this article said that at one point, the N.W.T. government played a role in funding the CORBs. In an email, a spokesperson for the department of Municipal and Community Affairs said the department does not specifically fund community-based radio, though local budgets could be used for the purpose. 

The same spokesperson said "most community-based radio societies are established as societies separate from the community government." The Fort Liard Communication Society, established in 1979, dissolved in 2002, according to the N.W.T. Legal Registry.

It's slightly different in the Yukon. "The Department of Highways and Public Works maintains community radio sites in some Yukon communities where there would otherwise be no radio broadcast service," spokesperson Brittany Cross said in an email.

CBC North headquarters in Yellowknife. Philippe Aubé, CBC's senior director of transmission operations in Montreal, said that decades ago, some communities — or their communications societies — took ownership of the transmitters that relay the signal into people's radios.

That includes five sites where they "maintain the equipment and radio licensing for the CBC FM transmitters ... as well as covering the costs of building maintenance and electricity."

They also make room for other Yukon radio broadcasters' equipment. 

"These sites are generally low maintenance, but ongoing support ... is provided through a combination of in-house staff, contractors and contributions from the other radio tenants," Cross said. 

'For them, it's a CBC service'

But few people know how exactly their radio gets into their houses, workplaces or vehicles.

"That's where it gets a bit sketchy sometimes," said the CBC's Aubé, "when one of those communities loses their signal and people start sending emails or chat on Facebook, saying, 'Hey our transmitter's off.' Because for them, it's a CBC service." 

"We try to help them over the phone as much as we can, but that's pretty much where it stops."

Aubé said Friday that he still hasn't confirmed what's going on in Fort Liard, though he's asked staff to follow up. "It appears it is not related to our satellite receiver," he said. 

'You can always Google stuff'

Chief Wilbert Kochon of Colville Lake, N.W.T., has experienced some of that technical assistance over the phone. 

When the community's transmitter gave out a few weeks ago, Kochon volunteered to sort it out. 

"I talked to your technician who helped me on the phone," Kochon said. 

They discovered the heat had gone out in the old band office where the transmitter is. Kochon put a portable heater on in the building and in the morning, it started working again.

Colville Lake, N.W.T., photographed in January of 2020. Chief Wilbert Kochon said when his community's transmitter gave out a few weeks ago, he called a technician who helped him over the phone. (John Last/CBC)

Kochon says repairs like these are something he does for the elders. 

"CKLB, they always call me too," Kochon said. "You can always Google stuff and then figure it out really fast." 

Even better, he laughed, would be if the community could hire its own technician and get some training from the CBC. 

A costly 'conundrum'

That's exactly what Bert Cervo would like to see. 

Cervo retired from the CBC in 2015 and lives in Whitehorse. He started as a remote area transmitter technician (RATT for short) in the 1980s and has visited nearly every small community in the North. 

He sees the situation in Fort Liard as part of a bigger problem. 

He's been contacted by people in several communities where CBC radio is down, "in some locations for two years," asking whether he can help get the signal back. 

The cost to fly in and do so, however, is simply too high, as is the cost of moving equipment or worse, buying new gear. All of which is made worse by the pandemic, which has severely restricted northern travel. 

"This is a conundrum that we've all been looking at for quite a while," Cervo said. 

He'd like to see the CBC take over the care and maintenance of the sites, or at least reimburse whoever goes there. He'd also like to see local people trained and paid to handle technical problems. 

"It's just not a cheap enterprise," Cervo said. 

Especially if older equipment needs to be replaced. "There is nothing that costs less than $1,000 or $2,000. Nothing. Then comes travel and everything else."