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Northwestel's satellite dish in the heart of Iqaluit, Nunavut, is the telecommunications artery for the territorial capital. At left are Nakasuk Elementary School and Inuksuk High School, and the Astro Hill complex is at right of the dish.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

Until fairly recently, every time government officials in Nunavut wanted to send a large digital file, they had to put a physical hard drive on a plane instead of transferring it electronically.

“The internet is not fast, reliable or affordable,” says Madeleine Redfern, the former Iqaluit mayor who has spent years advocating for better connectivity in the territory. “It is still a challenge to do basic things like online banking.”

Poor connectivity has hampered the territory’s government’s ability to serve its citizens. Medical workers have struggled to send information about their patients to specialists; business owners have lost clients because of slow internet; and students have not been able to access or afford the internet needed to attend online classes.

Nunavut internet still slower, more costly than rest of Canada

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Many Nunavummiut didn’t think it could get any worse. Then in November, 2019, a ransomware attack hit the government of Nunavut, rendering unavailable all government e-mails, documents as well as information about citizens’ health records, education or income support. Government employees were forced to communicate through fax machine for nearly two months. “To say it was disruptive was an understatement,” Ms. Redfern says.

The government called in Microsoft, who they had a pre-existing contract with, to help get their computers back online. But Dean Wells, Nunavut’s corporate chief information officer, didn’t want to simply return to the status quo. He saw the attack as an opportunity to completely revamp the government’s telecommunication system and change how some critical services are delivered to the public.

Before the attack, a new satellite built by Telecast had just become available to the government, increasing bandwidth. Mr. Wells wanted to leverage this new tool to move all government files from isolated computers to the cloud, making access easier and more secure. The government also worked with Microsoft to put videoconferencing software on the more than 5,000 government computers, which made it possible to access services such as health care.

While dealing with the ransomware attack has been difficult, with the government spending $5-million to recover, the changes made have improved the government’s ability to serve its citizens, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, medical officials can access records more effectively through the cloud, videoconferencing has improved telemedicine and allowed the government to offer training sessions for people across Nunavut. “It opened up a lot of new doors for us,” Mr. Wells says.

These improvements are a drop of hope for a territory that remains in many ways, an internet desert. While these changes are currently just for government officials, Mr. Wells and his team want to roll out their telecommunication system to households across the territory. But to do so requires the federal government to give funds to companies committed to actually getting the internet into people’s homes.

“When you situate Nunavut within the broader context of Canadian internet in general, they have continually been put last,” says Laura Tribe, the executive director for the internet advocacy group OpenMedia, who noted that in remote areas, having access to the internet can be the difference between life or death when it comes to contacting emergency services. “In Nunavut, it can be dangerous not to have internet.”

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Adeline Salomonie, a human resources director for the Nunavut government, checks her work computer from her home in Iqaluit on Aug. 20. A ransomware attack in late 2019 led to technological upgrades that proved useful during the COVID-19 pandemic; for Salomonie and her team, it helped them provide training to employees in communities all over Canada's largest territory.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

It has been a decade since the United Nations declared that access to the internet was a fundamental human right. In that time, people around the world have become ever more reliant on it to work, learn, order life-saving supplies, see doctors or connect with loved ones, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while connectivity has improved in Southern Canada, it has stagnated in Nunavut. Canada’s largest and northern-most territory is home to 38,780 people living across 25 municipalities. Other territories also struggle with similar issues, but Nunavut is the only province or territory that does not have access to fibre internet; Iqaluit remains the only capital in Canada that is still served by satellites, which have less bandwidth and are prone to interference due to weather or other factors.

A report commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut, found that 86 per cent of Canadian households have access to unlimited data packages and 94 per cent have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps). And yet, no Nunavut households receive this quality of service – the fastest possible speed available in the territory is 15 Mbps, eight times slower than the national average. Yet, the territory remains one of the most expensive places in the world for internet: A single household would have to pay $7,000 annually if it wanted the average level of data used by most Canadian households.

Poor internet connectivity has affected nearly every aspect of life for residents, stifling economic development by prohibiting people from accessing basic government services, remote jobs and learning opportunities.

In the health sector, medical workers struggle to send information about their patients to specialists in Southern Canada, sometimes waiting days for files to upload. In cases where files are too big or where a poor connection makes it hard for doctors to examine or listen to patients over a video call, residents have had to travel to Southern Canada for consultations, costing the Nunavut government roughly $70-million annually in travel costs. Poor internet connection has also limited access to online psychological services, such as therapists or psychiatrists, in a territory where the suicide rate is 10 times higher than the Canadian average.

For business owners, slow connectivity has also made it difficult to compete with companies in Southern Canada that are able to meet with and provide services to clients more quickly owing to faster internet. And for students, poor and expensive internet connectivity has inhibited them from receiving online education, resulting in many people needing to leave the territory to further their studies.

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Ms. Salomonie says access to the internet is "always the number one challenge" they've faced in when it comes to creating better training programs.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

But recent improvements in the government telecommunication services have shown how even the smallest changes can radically improve access to health care, education and limit the brain drain from the territory. Health professionals can now upload medical information, from charts to scans, more quickly. Communities that previously sent photos and text messages to communicate with doctors, can now have video calls in real time. This has not only cut down the costs of health care but has increased its quality and speed.

“We have moved significantly forward with providing medical access in the community,” says François de Wet, Nunavut Health’s chief of staff. The rise of videoconferencing has been especially helpful during the pandemic, where travel to Southern Canada required two weeks of quarantine, significantly increasing the cost as well as the wait time for patients to see doctors.

Beyond health care, improved telecommunication services have also created better training opportunities for civil servants. Previously, whenever the government wanted to have one of their 5,200-plus employees attend a conference, a language course or a training session for anything from first aid to new software, they had to fly them out. Because communities are spread out throughout the territory, travel could cost between $2,000 to $10,000 for each person. But now, training is happening online, which not only reduces costs for the government but allows more people to be trained simultaneously.

“The internet is always the number one challenge we’ve faced when it comes to training people,” says Adeline Salomonie, a government employee in Nunavut. “But now that we have videoconferencing, we are designing a program that will allow Inuit youth to access work placements online within their communities.”

In March, Ms. Salomonie held her first language training session online for communities spread across the territory. “I didn’t see [videoconferencing] as something that was on our horizon,” she says. “But I’m glad it’s here.”

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Adam Guimond-Pishuktie, a records analyst in the Nunavut government, works at his desk in Iqaluit on Aug. 20. The 19-year-old left a southern university to be closer to his family, but is taking advantage of training opportunities through his work, including learning Inuktitut online.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

For Adam Guimond-Pishkutie, a 19-year-old from Iqaluit who works for the government, seeing the improvements in its telecommunication services has given him hope of what better internet connectivity could do for the territory.

Like many young Nunavummiut, Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie has had to grapple with whether he wants to stay at home with his family or move to Southern Canada for educational and professional opportunities.

In the fall of 2019, Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie studied engineering at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. But he was unhappy there, missing his family and community back home. “I wasn’t doing great when I was down there,” Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie says. “I was in a completely different place with very different people and it meant my mental health started to decline.” After four months, he withdrew from the program. “I wanted to be in Nunavut to watch over my family,” he says.

When he moved back to Nunavut, Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie got a job working for the government as a junior analyst in the Department of Community and Government Services shortly after it had revamped its telecommunication system. Suddenly, he was able to learn new digital skills, such as making animated videos, and attend workshops. At the same time, the pandemic was unfolding and Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie watched as everything – from university classes to job opportunities – moved online. He saw this as an opportunity. If this trend continued, young people in Nunavut would no longer be forced to choose between staying with their communities or pursuing professional advancement in Southern Canada. “We’re having all these opportunities become available that weren’t open to us before,” he says. “A lot of jobs don’t need to be done in person any more.”

Internet connectivity in Nunavut, however, is still not reliable or affordable enough for young people to capitalize on the shift to online learning and work. Many of Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie’s friends have been unable to do their classes online and have had to move back down to Southern Canada where the internet is more affordable. “It’s still not realistic up here yet as the connection is not great,” Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie says. “If there was better internet connectivity and more online opportunities, I think my friends and I would stay up here.”

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Adam Guimond-Pishuktie Zachery Carpenter, and Tafara Chakonza work together at a Community and Government Services warehouse in Iqaluit.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

Since the government of Nunavut was created in 1999, there have been promises to create an effective and affordable electronic communications network for the territory. Yet, this has never materialized.

While some blame Nunavut’s poor internet connectivity on its vast geography, experts and residents alike maintain it is not a technical issue: Other Northern cities in Alaska and Greenland have high-speed internet. The issue, they say, is a political one.

For years, the federal government has invested billions of dollars to improve connectivity in Northern territories. Most recently, the government launched the now $2.75-billion fund in November, 2020, to expand high-speed internet to Canadians in remote communities as part of the Universal Broadband Fund, which aims to connect 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026. There is $6.9-million earmarked for two projects improving internet connectivity and affordability in Nunavut.

But experts say there are no concrete plans for how these funds can be used to improve internet connectivity. “Just having large programs and lots of funds is not a strategy,” Ms. Redfern says.

Part of the problem is that federal funding goes to big telecommunication firms such as Bell, Rogers and Telus – companies that historically have made little investments in remote, Northern and Indigenous communities because they are not deemed profitable markets. “The government strategy has been: ‘I’m sure companies will build it,’” Ms. Tribe says. “They have assumed the desire for profit will drive connectivity but this has not happened.”

The result is that larger companies are receiving federal funding without making significant efforts to improve the quality or affordability of the internet in the region. Meanwhile, smaller, Inuit-led telecommunication companies, such as PanArctic Communications and CanArctic Inuit Networks, are eager to bring better connection to remote areas but have struggled to get federal funding.

Some of these smaller internet providers also feel that larger telecommunication firms are pushing them out of the market. For example, Northwestel, a Bell-owned company, received $50-million in federal funding in 2017 to build a backbone – the main network lines that connect various areas – for Nunavut, on the condition that it be shared with other internet providers. But the backbone Northwestel built is “only functional for them and unusable for anyone else,” according to Dean Proctor, of the competing internet provider Qiniq.

The federal government told The Globe and Mail that it ensures all internet service providers receiving government funding keep their backbones open to other providers. Andrew Anderson, a spokesperson for Northwestel, also told The Globe that “any Internet Service Provider can access the network” in Nunavut and that several internet service providers already are using it. But when asked, Northwestel would not disclose information about who these providers are.

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Ashley Qayaqjuaq, Erica Tungilik, Nicole Curley and Carmen Javagiaq socialize in Iqaluit on Aug. 20. Residents of Nunavut have been forced to make choices: about whether to use internet data for a parent’s work or a child’s education; whether to stay with sick family members at home or travel down south for reliable internet.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail

Meanwhile, Nunavut’s Senator Dennis Patterson has accused Northwestel of using public funds to create a near-monopoly and called on the federal government to reconsider who it gives money to, noting that the current system favours large companies that continue to charge exorbitant prices without improving the quality of their services. Yet the federal government has not changed its approach. On June 2, Northwestel received another $1.9-million in funding. Ms. Redfern, among others, says the additional funds have “the very real potential to undermine and force smaller [Indigenous] telecommunication companies out.”

“Part of the challenge is that politicians do not understand the sector well enough,” Ms. Redfern says, noting that it took her nearly 10 years to understand the problem. “They’re hearing repeatedly from the large telecommunication companies’ lobbyists about what is beneficial for them instead of what is necessary for improving the internet for Indigenous parts of Canada.”

As the federal government pursues its flawed strategy, residents of Nunavut have been forced to make choices. About whether to use data for a parent’s work or a child’s education; whether to stay with sick family members at home or travel down south for reliable internet. “It makes you depreciated as a citizen,” Ms. Salomonie says. “We are living in a first-world country but we struggle with the internet. If it can be fixed, why isn’t it done?”

For young people like Mr. Guimond-Pishkutie, improving the accessibility and affordability of the internet quickly is critical: It could be the deciding factor for whether or not young people get an education, a good job opportunity or the mental-health support they need. “I keep hearing that all houses in Canada are going to be given high-speed internet connection,” he says. “But I’m waiting to see action.”

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