The Current

'I couldn't load my Zoom classes': Nunavik student skeptical of Liberals' internet promise

A fourth-year university student from a remote, northern Quebec community says it’s difficult for her to believe the federal government will bring high-speed internet to more Canadians in the coming years because "the entire region in Nunavik has been left behind."

Federal government promising high-speed internet for nearly all Canadians by 2026

Andrea Brazeau, a fourth-year student at McGill University in Montreal, says she couldn't study from home in her community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, because she couldn't connect to the internet at times. (Andrea Brazeau/Twitter)

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A fourth-year university student from a remote, northern Quebec community says it's difficult for her to believe the federal Liberal government will bring high-speed internet to more Canadians in the coming years because "the entire region in Nunavik has been left behind."

"First of all, they didn't keep their 2016 promises. So I have a hard time trusting that they will implement that by 2026," said Andrea Brazeau, who is from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, which has a population of about 900.

"The issue I'm talking about is right now. We are in a pandemic. I am studying from Montreal because I'm unable to study back home because the internet is unstable," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government is on track to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026. The Liberals also launched their previously announced $1.75-billion universal broadband fund this week, money for which was earmarked in last year's budget. 

The Opposition Conservatives have criticized the government's timeline, arguing the pandemic means Canadians need access to reliable internet now.

In 2016, the CRTC declared broadband internet a basic service, and ordered internet providers to boost service and speed in rural and isolated communities. But CRTC data shows just 40.8 per cent of rural Canadian households have access to download speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 10 Mbps — the targets the CRTC set for providers.

The federal government on Monday committed to making high-speed internet accessible to 98 per cent of Canadians by 2026. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

Brazeau said she tried to continue her studies from Nunavik during the first lockdown earlier this year, but it proved "impossible" because, at times, she can't even log onto the internet there.

"I couldn't load my Zoom classes. Loading documents was taking very long, and it wasted a lot of time," she said. "So I had no choice [but] to come to Montreal."

While the pandemic has made it easier for many Canadians to speak with health-care providers via video chat, Brazeau said that's not a possibility for her community either. She was scheduled to speak with a mental health professional on Zoom, from her home in Kangiqsualujjuaq, but had to cancel it because of internet issues, she said.

With Quebec's capital once again in the midst of lockdown restrictions, Brazeau said returning to Montreal has taken a negative toll on her mental health and well-being.

"It also makes me think about the children, the students in my community, in my region," she said. "If lockdown happens and they're forced to go home, they can't do online learning because [the] internet is too slow."

Internet access 'a must-have': minister

Helen Hambly, who leads the Regional and Rural Broadband Project at the University of Guelph, said that in 2006, her research found two-thirds of rural Ontario lacked high-speed internet.

"Ten years later, we still see even [in] a more densely populated area like southern Ontario, over 200,000 households below the [CRTC's] basic service objective of 50 Mbps download, 10 Mbps upload," she said.

"So it isn't just the hardest to reach communities," Hambly added. "It's affecting even urban Canadians — certain neighbourhoods that are underserved."

Maryam Monsef is the minister for rural economic development. (CBC)

Rural Economic Development Minister Maryam Monsef said people like Brazeau have every right to be frustrated and skeptical.

However, she said the government's promise is different this time, because internet is no longer a "nice-to-have."

"It is a must-have, and the government of Canada is putting its full force behind it," she told Galloway.

Monsef said communities like Brazeau's could get online faster by applying to the government's rapid response stream of the universal broadband fund. As part of Monday's funding announcement, the Liberals set aside $150 million for the stream, which aims to "enhance household access" to high-speed internet in the short-term, or by Nov. 15, 2021.

Solving connectivity issues is complex, Hambly said, because it requires technology, engineering, and the finances to construct telecommunications infrastructure. And in many cases, that infrastructure is owned by the private sector.

"There's a lot of diverse stakeholders in this sector, and the federal government and its work on the regulatory side … will be crucial to making sure that the [universal broadband fund] is successful," Hambly said. 

"We expect to see … a comprehensive or a holistic approach to rural broadband moving forward."

Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Alex Zabjek, Isabelle Gallant, Paul MacInnis and Liz Hoath.