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Flooding prompts renewed call for reliable cell service in Pontiac

After scrambling for more than two weeks to assist stranded residents surrounded by flood waters, municipal leaders in the county of Pontiac in western Quebec are renewing their call for reliable cellular service in their communities.

Mayors couldn't communicate with each other during emergency

Volunteers fill and distribute sandbags at the municipal building in Pontiac, Que. The mayors of neighbouring municipalities in MRC Pontiac are demanding better cellular service to communicate with residents and coordinate relief efforts during emergencies. (Laura Osman/CBC)

After scrambling for more than two weeks to assist stranded residents surrounded by flood waters, municipal leaders in the county of Pontiac in western Quebec are renewing their call for reliable cellular service in their communities.

We can't communicate with our neighbours, and that's crazy.- David Rochon, mayor of Whaltham, Que.

"The worst thing in this whole disaster was we couldn't even work with other municipalities because we couldn't reach them," said David Rochon, mayor of Whaltham, Que., a village on Highway 148 with a population of 386 residents and virtually zero cell phone reception.

"They were in the same predicament as me. They were out [away from landlines]," he said. 

"Whenever you're in a crisis like this you need that cell service. But we can't communicate with our neighbours, and that's crazy," said Rochon.

Fort-Coulonge was one of the hardest-hit municipalities in MRC Pontiac during the spring floods of 2017, and again in 2019. (Radio-Canada)

'We're still human beings'

Karen Kelly, the mayor of Thorne, Que., said she spent hours calling households in her municipality to check on residents.

She believes reliable cell service would have made that job a lot more efficient, and worries what would have happened if there'd been an emergency evacuation.

"The government has to understand that even though we're small, we're still ratepayers, we're still human beings. We need this access to the outside world," Kelly said.

Of the 18 municipalities that make up MRC Pontiac, 13 suffered what Pontiac warden Jane Toller described as "significant" damage.

"We have some municipalities that cannot access cellular service. For any emergencies this creates a major problem," Toller said.

"Some residents have landlines, but cellular service is a basic need and a basic requirement."

Spotty cell service made flood situation more difficult, officials say

4 years ago
Duration 0:32
Pontiac MP Will Amos says communicating during the flooding was a challenge in some areas because of a lack of cell service.

Even before the spring flooding, Toller and the county's mayors had been lobbying government and industry to address cellular dead zones, especially along Highway 148.

"Our No. 1 priority in MRC Pontiac since the beginning of this term in 2017 is better communication, which includes cellular and Internet," Toller said.

The MP for Pontiac, Will Amos, has tabled a private member's motion calling on the House of Commons to recognize the importance of cellular coverage and reliable Internet access in rural areas. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

MP's motion to highlight issue

The MP for Pontiac, Will Amos, tabled a private member's motion back in November 2018 calling on the House of Commons to recognize the importance of cellular coverage and reliable Internet access in rural areas.

The flood situation really put the exclamation point on it.- Will Amos, MP for Pontiac

"The flood situation really put the exclamation point on it," Amos said.

"When you have municipal officials who aren't able to communicate with their constituents or with their member of parliament by cell phone, then you clearly have a challenge."

The motion, M-208, passed second debate in April and a vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

Amos said the motion also asks the government to continue its efforts to improve cellular and Internet service in rural areas, and examine the possibility of more investments in digital infrastructure.

While Rochon agrees government has an important role to play, he also has a message for the large telecom companies after witnessing acts of generosity from local businesses in the Pontiac, including a construction company that lent its trucks free of charge and the local bank branch that provided money for hot meals to affected residents.

"It's very nice to see companies put people's lives ahead of the almighty dollar," Rochon said.

"I think it's time our telecommunication companies start doing that instead of sitting back and waiting for the government to do something. They gotta step up here."

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