A week after telling libraries and community groups across the country that long-standing funding for public Internet access is disappearing, the federal Conservative government now says it was all a misunderstanding.
Industry Minister Tony Clement told reporters Tuesday that $13-million in funding for the gutted Community Access Program will survive under a different name, at least for this year.
The 16-year-old program sends about $4,000 each to libraries, centres that serve youth, seniors and the unemployed, and many other sites so they can provide free computer and Internet access to Canadians who need it.
"We certainly regret any confusion that has been caused to some of the recipients of this money," Mr. Clement said. "It is being funded through a different program, and it is in fact continuing."
But the Industry Minister's office made no mention late Monday of the continued funding in a response to a series of questions posed by The Canadian Press.
Instead, it underlined the fact that the program had "fulfilled its mandate" of bridging the digital divide and that the $15-million had been cut to $2-million. That same response was echoed in the House of Commons earlier Monday by junior science minister Gary Goodyear, again with no mention of the change in funding.
Groups had received letters informing them that if they were a public library or an organization within 25 kilometres of a public library, they were no longer eligible for funding. The new criteria hits rural areas hard, where many community organizations are clustered in the centre of town and near a library.
The opposition declared it a flip-flop.
"We're hearing a totally different story," said NDP rural communities critic Niki Ashton. "I know from my region, and organizations across the country that they were notified that they would be getting a cut in programming."
"We're glad to see a recognition that this is important, but at the same time, this was a real case of this government taking rural Canadians for granted. Was it rural outrage that sparked the change? I'd like to know."
Reaction to the funding-cut notice was swift, with politicians and community groups across the country - including in Mr. Clement's riding - bemoaning the loss of cash that largely benefits Canadians who lack the means to buy a computer or pay for a monthly Internet bill.
"We feel it is an important service provided to the communities, including many where literacy is a major issue," said Donald Arseneault, New Brunswick's post-secondary education, training and labour minister.
"We have to make sure we give them the proper skills and proper programs. These community access centres give us the opportunity to do just that. It's vital for New Brunswick."
Lynda Rickard, executive director of the Technology Alliance Group in central Ontario, said cutting the program was a poor decision given the tough economic times.
"Many of the users of CAP have given up their home Internet service because of the economy and many more are coming to use the Internet for job search," said Ms. Rickard, whose group in Lindsay, Ont., administers funds for a range of community organizations.
"Charging for this service is going to be a burden on people who are already disadvantaged."
How the funding will be handled in the future and how long it will last is unclear. The money will be distributed under a new rural broadband strategy, which is already doling out $200 million to communities to help hook them up to the Internet.
Mr. Clement said the money for libraries and community centres will be ramped down when more Canadians have the opportunity to pay for high-speech Internet at home.
"We don't want to get anybody left in the lurch by having the funding cut this year, while the broadband strategy to households is still rolling out," he said.
But Ms. Rickard points out not everyone can afford to pay for the Internet, period.
"There is a difference between service existing and service being available to all."
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