SUDBURY -- The Ontario government announced Tuesday it is investing $2.4 million in seven projects that will give rural and Indigenous communities in northern Ontario access to reliable internet.

The lack of reliable internet access in northern Ontario is something that has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic with students pushed to online learning. 

"COVID-19 is increasing demand for reliable broadband service to connect Ontarians to their work, education and their businesses," said Laurie Scott, Minister of Infrastructure. "It is clear functioning remotely will continue to be a regular way of life and fast and reliable internet will be critical to bridge the digital divide in Northern Ontario."

Earlier this month, Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas told CTV News that about 40,000 people in her riding do not have broadband internet and that many of them live in Greater Sudbury.

"Now more than ever, there is a need to improve broadband services in Northern Ontario. For too long, the north has lacked access to high-speed internet with limited connectivity in many remote communities," said Greg Rickford, Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines. "Broadband is a key driver for economic growth, innovation and job creation and keeps our northern communities connected to their families and businesses. Our government is proud to support these critical infrastructure projects."

Gelinas is not convinced the newly-announced northern projects will help anyone in her riding. She says because a lot of work the government does is contingent on partnering with the private sector and that is a problem for small communities where there is not a lot of money to be made.

"Am I happy that we will have a new fibre optic network? Yes. But I can tell you that, again, I can take the example of Ivanhoe and Foleyet. There is a brand new fibre optic cable that runs through this area, but nobody bothers to connect those communities because there is no money to be made," said the MPP. "Does that guarantee that any small community will have a better service? No, absolutely not. They will see this brand new cable go by their community, but there is nothing that guarantees them that they will get connected because it's run by the for-profit who cannot make money in those little communities, therefore they don't connect them."

During question period at Queen's Park on Tuesday, Guy Bourgouin, the MPP for Mushkegowuk-James Bay, asked the premier to explain the meaning of equitable access to education to students in northern Ontario that do not have reliable internet at home.

He says over 120,000 people in northern Ontario lack access to reliable broadband, and 70 per cent of them reside in the northeast.

"While the minister of education speaks of ‘equitable access to education’, students in the remote James Bay coast have to carefully use the limited internet that is shared with health clinics, public services and households," said Bourgouin.

House leader Paul Calandra responded that the disparity between urban and rural is something that the Ford government is focused on since they came into power and that the Minister of Infrastructure is working on a plan that will increase broadband access across the province.

"The minister is working very closely with their partners in northern Ontario, with the boards in northern Ontario, to make sure that students there, whether it's virtually, through bussing, whether it's a return to school, that those kids have the best quality education. There should be no difference between urban and rural," said Calandra. "And that is what this government is focused on – making sure all kids have the best quality education."

Gelinas says her calls for a concrete plan and timeline to connect the communities that lack reliable access to the internet have gone unanswered.

The money announced Tuesday is coming from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation and includes:

  • $1,036,772 for the Corporation du Développement Économique et Communautaire (CDEC) de Dubreuilville to install fibre optic infrastructure from Wawa to Dubreuilville, as well as to plan and secure partnerships with telecommunications companies for future broadband improvement projects
  • $461,971 for Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) to upgrade its fibre optic network and install 11 in-line amplifier sites between Sudbury and Thunder Bay
  • $240,804 for Tbaytel to deliver internet services in the rural areas surrounding Thunder Bay, including the municipalities of Shuniah, Oliver-Paipoonge, Neebing and Fort William First Nation
  • $232,500 for North Eastern Ontario Communications Network (NEOnet) Inc. to launch and administer its Broadband for Remote Areas program, which will provide grants to small- and medium-sized enterprises located in northern Ontario to assist with the purchase and installation of specialized equipment that will provide two-way, high-speed internet service
  • $173,000 for Mitaanjigamiing First Nation, north of Fort Frances, to upgrade broadband fibre optic cable and infrastructure in the community
  • $139,130 for Keewaytinook Okimakanak, which serves six member First Nations in northwestern Ontario, to secure an 18-month contract for extended satellite bandwidth for the remote First Nations of Fort Hope, Martin Falls, Neskantaga and Webequie until permanent fibre optic cable is installed as well as $110,942 to upgrade broadband fibre optic cable and infrastructure in the Ojibway Nation of Saugeen community.

This money follows an announcement made by the province on June 3 of $150 million for the new Improving Connectivity in Ontario program that funds broadband infrastructure projects in rural, remote and underserved regions of Ontario and is part of the province's $315 million initiative called Up to Speed: Ontario's Broadband and Cellular Action Plan.

Alex Puddifant is the Press Secretary to the Ontario Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and Minister of Indigenous Affairs. He says the $2.4 million announcement from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund is separate from the $150 million for the new Improving Connectivity in Ontario program.