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THUNDER BAY, ON: Matawa First Nations today called for the commitment of the governments of Ontario and Canada to fully collaborate on providing funding for a project aimed at connecting 5 remote First Nations in Matawa to broadband. They are seeking $4.028 million to complete design, engineering and construction planning. They will be seeking additional capital for the construction phase which they hope to start this winter with the goal to have the first communities connected in the spring of 2017. The project has potential to be the only one if its kind in any First Nation in Canada as it replaces the copper method.

In 2010, $81 million in funding was announced by Canada and Ontario to bring a state-of-the-art backbone fibre optic network to 26 First Nations communities in Nishnawbe Aski Nation who partnered with Bell Alliant. This initiative, called the Northwestern Ontario Broadband Expansion Initiative (NOBEI), originally planned to include Nibinamik, Webequie, Neskantaga, Eabametoong and Marten Falls First Nations—the 5 remote Matawa First Nations directly within the area known as the Ring of Fire. Then, in 2013, they were informed that the NOBEI had gone over budget due to issues in the construction of the 21 Non-Matawa First Nations leaving them without funding or a plan for broadband connection.

The 5 Matawa First Nations left out of the NOBEI said that full funding commitment is required on April 1 as the 2016 federal budget is released. They are growing increasingly frustrated after have been waiting for 3 years and having been disappointed by the NOBEI. They warn that if investments do not take place now, future costs will rise with inflation and they will have to continue to rely on an outdated, dysfunctional and expensive satellite and microwave telecommunications system that is riddled by blackouts and breakdowns.

The call comes on the heels of the 2nd anniversary of the Regional Framework Agreement (RFA) signed between Ontario and Matawa First Nations on March 24, 2014. The RFA includes infrastructure such as broadband as one of its four pillars. Other pillars include revenue sharing, socio-economic, and environment. Matawa CEO David Paul Achneepineskum said that the lack of broadband leaves First Nations disadvantaged in these negotiations with respect to access/dissemination of information and reporting.

Recently, Eabametoong First Nation Chief Elizabeth Atlookan drew attention to the hardships the lack of broadband connectivity is having in her community saying that it is interfering with the ability to do business like financial reporting and conducting banking.

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, a United Nations body that advocates for digital inclusion have reaffirmed the important and urgent need to provide access to basic telecommunication/information and communication technology (ICT) services for everyone, and particularly for developing countries, in order to provide coverage in rural and isolated areas which lack this service, and in Indigenous communities. Ironically, within Canada, programs such as Industry Canada’s Connecting Canadians are not accessible to First Nations as Matawa First Nations learned after being denied funding in 2015. They feel this program needs to be re-launched to remove barriers to access.

It is not known if previous cuts to Canada’s FedNor played a role in the ability of this project to get underway but Matawa First Nations are in agreement that support for economic diversification in the north should be a priority with projects such as improving their broadband connectivity. They also believe that long term re-tooling of the Canadian economy for sustained growth needs to include support for how, and in which sequence, they would like to see infrastructure development taking place within their territories.

The Matawa Broadband Project Steering Committee who have been overseeing this project, made up of representatives from 6 First Nations interested in broadband connectivity, including Aroland First Nation, are meeting with officials from Canada and Ontario at the end of this month. They are hoping for a favourable response from them and in the federal budget 2016.

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