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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks on the wildfires in B.C. and the Northwest Territories after visiting evacuees in Edmonton, on Aug. 18.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused Facebook of putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety by blocking Canadians’ access to news as wildfires rage.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in Cornwall, PEI, Mr. Trudeau sharply criticized the tech giant for its response to the government’s Online News Act while people are fleeing their homes and seeking updates about spreading fires in B.C. and the Northwest Territories.

Mr. Trudeau said access to local news is “unbelievably essential” to keep people informed about such things as evacuation orders.

“Right now in an emergency situation where up to date local information is more important than ever, Facebook’s putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety, ahead of supporting quality local journalism,” Mr. Trudeau said. " This is not the time for that.”

He added that the Online News Act was designed to ensure that local journalists are paid fairly “for keeping Canadians informed on things like wildfires.”

“It’s time for us to expect more from corporations like Facebook that are making billions of dollars off of Canadians,” he said.

B.C.’s Premier David Eby is also calling on Meta to reverse its decision to block Canadians’ news access, saying it feels like the social media company is holding the province “ransom” in its ongoing spat with Ottawa.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge said Facebook should come to the table and discuss the legislation, which is not yet in force.

“Right now there is no good reason for Facebook to ban Canadian news because the law isn’t being applied right now,” she told reporters in Charlottetown.

Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Facebook, said many Canadians are still using Facebook to “connect with their communities and access reputable information, including content from official government agencies, emergency services and non-governmental organizations.”

“The Online News Act forces us to end access to news content in order to comply with the legislation, but we remain focused on making our technologies available, including our Safety Check tool, which as of Friday more than 45,000 people had used to mark themselves safe,” Meta said in a statement. “In addition, 300,000 people had visited the Yellowknife and Kelowna Crisis Response pages on Facebook to request support, check on loved ones and access information. We will continue working to ensure people in impacted communities are receiving good, credible, updated information on our platforms.”

The Online News Act, which gained royal assent in June, was designed to make Meta and Google compensate news organizations for posting and linking to their work. The tech giants say the legislation would impose unlimited financial liabilities on them, with Facebook adding that it is providing free marketing to news organizations by allowing them to post links to news on its platform.

Google has also said it would block access to news in response to the act. But it is in talks with the government about regulations that would determine how the act is implemented. Meta has said regulations would not do enough to fix the legislation.

Ricard Gil, an associate professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, said the Prime Minister’s comments about Meta were “self-serving” and meant to put pressure on the social-media giant.

“They are going to use this to put more heat [on the platform] and shift public opinion against Meta,” he said. “I think that is the purpose of this. Focusing on this at this time is outside the point.”

But Kevin Desjardins, the president of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, said that while journalists were working hard to keep people informed of wildfires in their areas, Facebook was more interested in its negotiating position.

“Broadcasters in the affected areas are going above and beyond to stay on the air and help keep their communities informed. It is completely unacceptable that Meta is blocking this critical information as they remain focused on their bargaining position with the government rather than the safety of Canadians,” he said.

Archie McLean, a Mount Royal University journalism professor and former managing editor for CBC North in Yellowknife, said that in the Northwest Territories, Facebook is a key communication tool.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer for them to at least, even if it was temporary, allow these news publications to post stories to all NWT residents to share news back and forth,” Mr. McLean said.

He added that the federal government deserves its “fair share of blame” for igniting a battle with Meta and ignoring concerns from media organizations and public-safety experts about the wording of the Online News Act and possible retaliation from the platforms.

Google has said it would not block SOS safety alerts or information about forest fires, floods or other emergency situations. It told The Globe and Mail in June that it has briefed federal, provincial and local public-safety officials to reassure them it would continue to provide information during a crisis.

Sara Bannerman, the Canada research chair in communication policy and governance at McMaster University, said Meta’s actions demonstrate the consequences of not regulating tech giants.

“This highlights the stark difference between for-profit private communication systems that have been largely unregulated and those that have been brought to serve the public interest through regulation,” she said.

Hay River, a small town across Great Slave Lake from Yellowknife, faced a near-total communications blackout last Sunday when a wildfire damaged a fibre-optic cable. Facebook became a gathering place for residents and their loved ones outside the territory to check in and share important emergency information when possible.

Edmonton resident Chris Lepine, whose family lives in Hay River, said it was helpful at first. By following posts made in a Hay River public group on Facebook, he could scan pictures and videos of evacuees leaving the area to see if his aunt and uncle had fled to safety and to take notes on which roads out of the town were blocked by flames.

But the group quickly became its “own worst enemy,” he said, as misinformation and hearsay took hold.

He turned to northern media outlet Cabin Radio for timely information, refreshing the page constantly while he waited for his family to contact him. “They were producing some of the highest-quality, actual factual information from the ground,” Mr. Lepine said.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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