'Lives at stake': Northern Sask. First Nation on 12-year hold for cell service

Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation leaders say they've been waiting for the provincial government to fulfil a promise from 2010 to provide cell service. Their nearest tower is 40 kilometres away.

Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation relies on landlines, nearest cell tower 40 km away

SaskTel says it applied for federal funding to improve service for Ministikwan in 2020. As of Monday, it has not heard back. (Lauren Golosky/CBC)

More than 1,000 people living in a Northern Saskatchewan First Nation still don't have cell service, despite promises made by the provincial government in 2010. 

There's no cell tower in Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, located about 100 kilometres west of Meadow Lake, meaning people rely on landlines. 

The nearest tower is 40 kilometres east of the community — roughly the distance from the Saskatchewan Legislative Building to Regina Beach. 

On Monday, Ministikwan chief and and council members drove to Regina to address the lack coverage at a news conference downtown. 

"The number one thing is safety, and we have no cell service to contact the emergency services that we need," said Ministikwan Chief Leon Crookedneck.

A screenshot from the SaskTel website on Feb. 14, 2022, shows the nearest cell tower to Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation is located 40 kilometres east at Makwa Lake. (

The First Nation has already faced the tragic consequences of a digital divide.

In April 2010, 19-year-old Kerry Canepotatoe from Ministikwan died after being stranded in the wilderness near Big River, Sask. 

While a 911 call went through, it was spotty and eventually dropped due to poor cell coverage. RCMP did not send anyone to help, to which they later admitted fault. 

Ministikwan leaders said then-Premier Brad Wall promised cell service in every corner of the province that same year. But they're still waiting.

"There are risk factors along with it. Lives are at stake. Human lives are at stake," said band councillor Cameron Janvier.

"We need to build better lines of communications. We need those cell towers."

Janvier added that without coverage, the community is further oppressed when it comes to economic opportunity. 

"We need to connect. Connectivity is very key and instrumental to productivity to better our economic situation. We need to bridge that gap," he said. 

Ministikwan band councillor Cameron Janvier speaks at a news conference held at the Delta Hotel in downtown Regina on Feb. 14, 2022. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC)

The First Nation stated it's willing to put forward funding to help with building a tower. An email from SaskTel in 2018 gave the community a contribution quote of $321,000. It did not state the total cost of installing a cell tower in the area.

Band council "was told that there would be no remuneration for them," Janvier said. 

"Crown corporations have been established to supply services to the people, and it's obvious there's profit being made in our Crown Corporation, SaskTel, but it's maybe not being reinvested in the in the way we would like to see." 

Project on hold with feds: province

Crown Investments Corporation Minister Don Morgan addressed the First Nation's lack of cell coverage in an email statement to CBC News.

In it, Morgan said SaskTel and Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation have been "actively engaging" under the Community Partnership Program to improve wireless access in their area. The program was created in 2013.

He said in 2020, SaskTel applied for funding via the federal government's universal broadband fund to bring coverage to Ministikwan. 

Morgan noted that despite submitting the proposal nearly two years ago, SaskTel has still not received a response on its application to support the First Nation. 

"We urge the federal government to work with SaskTel to improve wireless coverage across northern Saskatchewan," the statement reads. 

Leaders say systemic racism at root

Ministikwan leaders and members of the Saskatchewan NDP pointed to systemic racism as the underlying cause for the delay in providing cell service. 

"In the fall, this government announced that they're in the final stages of creating 74 new cell towers, yet there is not one cell tower near an Indigenous community. Now tell me, how is that not systemic racism?" said Betty Nippi-Albright, the opposition critic for First Nations and Métis Relations.

"This government talks about reconciliation. They keep giving lip service. You know, you can't have meaningful reconciliation without also addressing economic reconciliation."

Janvier added that meaningful engagement and action from the government — and corporate Saskatchewan — is needed to help the community move forward. 

"If we had this initiative, and we had the willpower, from all sides to work together, Saskatchewan would be a better place to live in for everybody collectively," he said.

"Systemic racism isn't the answer. All that does is cause division right across the province, and it's unhealthy. If we want to build healthy organizations collectively, then let's do it by working together. Let's bring solutions to the table. Let's bring a meaningful dialogue to the table."


Daniella Ponticelli is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She has worked in print, broadcast and digital journalism in Manitoba and Saskatchewan since 2012. Get in touch with Daniella at or on Twitter @dponticelliTV.