The Dunster General Store plays a vital role in its small Northern B.C. farming community. The bright blue building nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Fraser River is the only post office and store selling groceries, hardware, animal feed and other supplies in Dunster.
But in August, the town lost the one thing that owner Chantal Swets says visitors marvel at most about her more than 100-year-old store: the pay phone.
Dunster’s pay phone is among the last in Canada. When Ms. Swets first bought the store 20 years ago, the pay phone that sat outside was one of about 38,000 Telus-owned pay phones in B.C. and Alberta. Today, Telus operates only about 2,500 active pay phones across the region.
Ms. Swets remembers how useful pay phones were during her childhood years in Quebec – she could step into a pay phone booth and slide the doors shut against the rain, the freezing wind, or the cacophony of passing cars. She hasn’t seen a pay phone with doors in years, but sometimes she used to tuck inside the booths even when she didn’t have a call to make, to escape the rush of a crowded bus shelter.
Ms. Swets says the Dunster General Store’s pay phone was mostly frequented by tourists and a few locals without cellphones or landlines. Occasionally, she had residents come into the store requesting “old” quarters – the pay phone took only scuffed up currency or credit cards.
She wishes there was something she could do to stop Dunster’s pay phone from disappearing. But between running the store, her role as the town’s only postmaster, and maintaining the mill and farm at her home, she has little energy left to fight one of Canada’s largest telecommunication companies. “If I didn’t have all that stuff, I would tackle Telus,” she said.
As pay phones near extinction, advocates and regular pay phone users say the country is losing an affordable, reliable communication service for communities that are low income, rural, in need of emergency assistance, or otherwise cellphone-averse. But the frequency with which some phones are actually used make it difficult for telecommunication companies to justify leaving them alone, despite the nostalgia they evoke.
The number of pay phones nationwide fell 67 per cent from 84,870 in 2013 to 28,095 in 2020. Even as cellphones grew to dominate the telecommunications market and pay phones were phased out – even New York removed all but four earlier this year – pockets of them remained in Canada. It is difficult to say who owns these phones as Bell Canada declined to disclose details of their active pay phones, but there at least 6,200 phones with known operators. These include about 2,500 Telus phones, more than 3,000 Bell phones in Toronto and more than 700 owned by SaskTel in Saskatchewan.
Pay phones still serve wider demographics for those able to find one. Ron Wilton, a 78-year-old resident of Melville, Sask., regularly forgets his cellphone at home when going out for the day. But for $0.25, he can use any of the pay phones on the city’s main strip to call his sister for assistance.
“I like knowing they are available, especially after hours when most of the stores are closed, just in case there is an emergency,” he said. “Maybe tourists would be surprised to see them, but for us locals it is just natural that they have always been there.”
Joshua Nelson has spent more than a decade seeking out and photographing any pay phones in Canada that he can find for the Bell Pay Phone Project, which he runs on Instagram. He’s encountered pay phones in spots from subway stations to nudist beaches, and although he personally is not a pay phone user, he’s seen the value it can provide to people who don’t have alternative ways to communicate.
“It really does cross quite a large [cross-section] who is using these things,” said Mr. Nelson, a professional designer and urbanist who has witnessed seniors and people experiencing homelessness using the phones.
When he first began photographing pay phones, he was surprised to discover a phone he came to take photos of was busy – particularly as Mr. Nelson doesn’t have any phone numbers memorized to be able to make a call himself. But he has gotten used to the ways people interact with these phones in modern spaces, such as those who still swipe their fingers through the coin return slot as they pass by to check for forgotten change.
About 99.7 per cent of Canadians have access to mobile coverage from at least one provider according to the CRTC, and 88.8 per cent of major highways in Canada – outside of the northern territories – have access to LTE coverage.
However, a 2021 study found that Canadians pay among the highest monthly bills for wireless in the world, with the minimum monthly plan for a 4G or 5G smartphone plan totalling to 13 times the cost of the same plan in France.
A 2015 CRTC report on the role of pay phones found that pay phones remain important for people who need an affordable alternative to cellphones, particularly for those who are new immigrants, economically disadvantaged, suffering abuse or socially vulnerable. On rural stretches of highway without cell phone service or in the event of a crisis, access can be even more of a concern.
One Ontario resident with multiple sclerosis said most of their income from a low pension went to rent and food each month, without enough money left to afford a cell phone. Instead, they walked to a pay phone at the nearby hospital to arrange rides for doctor’s appointments. Another respondent, a low-income mother of four, said she was unable to afford cell phones for her children to call home, but her daughter was able to reach her on a pay phone after missing the last bus on a 40-kilometre journey home from working a part time job.
For women experiencing intimate partner violence, pay phones can be an important lifeline for accessing government and medical services, contacting their employers, or reaching out socially. Alice Kendall, executive director at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre in Vancouver, said although pay phones availability can’t solve the issue of violence against women, having safe, anonymous access to a phone can be a first step for women seeking help escaping abuse.
The City of Toronto did recognize the significance of pay phones for helping people in need reach out in 2011, when the Toronto Transit Commission and Bell Canada partnered to make calls from 620 pay phones in subway stations free for those accessing mental health support through Distress Centres of Toronto.
But telecom companies may not be swayed by these arguments. A spokesperson for Telus, Chelsey Rajzer, said the Dunster pay phone generated less than $3, at $0.50 per local call, in 2021. Telus bases their decision to remove a pay phone depending on use and availability of phones nearby – all of the pay phones deactivated by Telus in 2020 and 2021 generated less than $5 in calls. Ms. Rajzer also noted Ms. Swets’s landline inside the store is an alternative for anyone needing a phone.
“As a result, we are confident that removing this pay phone will not impact the community,” Ms. Rajzer said.
On behalf of every community where a pay phone is removed, Ms. Rajzer said Telus makes a $1,000 donation to its Telus Friendly Future Foundation, a charity that funds technology, health, and education programs for youth.
Dunster native and MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley Taylor Bachrach has seen firsthand how passionate rural residents can be about their pay phones. When travelling through Northern B.C. to campaign for his seat, Mr. Bachrach was challenged by the residents of the rural community of Rosswood to get their general store’s pay phone repaired. Some residents had used the phone daily until it became inoperable after lightning struck the store.
After a few attempts, Mr. Bachrach was successful in prompting Telus to fix the store’s pay phone and even install a second phone adjacent to the original.
“Through that chain of events, Rosswood has probably gained the distinction of having more pay phones per capita than anywhere in Western Canada,” he said.
Rosswood’s story, however, is a rare one. Even in Toronto, Mr. Nelson has come across areas where he photographed pay phones in years past that now only show a stump and a bolt sticking out of the cement, “a little bit like gravestones all around the city.”
John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said that access to communications is still a basic public need that Canada should make accessible. He equated these services with libraries and public bathrooms. But because pay phones aren’t as profitable for telecom companies as wireless services, Mr. Lawford says low income populations have faced steep hikes in charges since Bell contracted out long distance and credit card calling to a third party.
“Don’t just abandon the idea. It’s part of the public access network and it’s been left to rot,” he said. “New ideas are long overdue.”
Canada may not have widespread accessible alternatives, but other cities such as New York have had more success. The LinkNYC system replaced pay phones with free public WiFi and a tablet capable of making free domestic phone calls, providing access to city services and giving directions.
Carriers have yet to popularize a similar initiative in Canada, and previous projects by SaskTel and Bell Canada to turn pay phone booths into internet-capable hotspots were ultimately abandoned. Bell’s terminals never received enough uptake, and SaskTel was told businesses that offered WiFi for their patrons did not want to compete with the hotspots.
Without a new advancement to provide an affordable option for those without cell plans, Mr. Bachrach worries for those who will be left disconnected when the final pay phone line is cut. His 76-year-old father, who lives in Dunster, doesn’t own a cellphone, and Mr. Bachrach worries about his father travelling in a post-pay phone world where he’s unable to contact loved ones or authorities in case of emergencies.
“There are people who are being left out of this technological transition, and there’s more that we could do to accommodate them,” Mr. Bachrach said. “Lack of access to communications really impacts peoples’ quality of life.”
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