Indigenous-owned service connects Far North to high-speed internet

People in the remote Ontario Far North community of Fort Albany First Nation are now able to connect to the rest of the country and the world with blazing-fast internet connections, with neighbouring communities to follow.

The Western James Bay Telecom Network launched fibre optic internet in the First Nation last month, and around 90 of the more than 200 homes have already signed up.

Sally Braun is the general manager of the Indigenous-owned company. She said this new service will let the community access better education, telemedicine and business opportunities like never before—something she said will benefit the whole country.

"Canada needs the skills and knowledge that the people in these communities can bring to the table, to solve any manor of issues that we're facing as a country," Braun said in an interview.

"Climate change, energy, resource extraction. These are all areas that the skill and the expertise that the Indigenous communities have to offer can be brought to the table through fibre-optic connectivity."

Braun calls this revolutionary for the community, likening this to driving a horse-and-buggy one day and waking up to a Lamborghini the next.

She said the service was made possible through the groundwork laid by Timmins-based Five Nations Energy – another Indigenous-owned company -- that brought improved electrical power and telecommunications infrastructure to the far north in the early 2000s. Looking ahead to future needs, the energy company made extra investments in the millions of dollars to install fibre optic cables.

The telecom company then took the lead in building the internet infrastructure within the western James Bay communities over the last decade.

With Fort Albany connected to fibre, the goal is now to reach Attawapiskat and Kashechewan First Nations. The expansion is expected to be done later this year after delays due to the pandemic caused the initial 2020 completion date to be pushed back.

Five Nations Energy CEO Pat Chilton said this project will change the lives of people in these communities.

"When you live in remote communities, you want access to the real world, outside world," said Chilton.

"By putting this in and having that accessible to them, to the community members and to the businesses and healthcare and educators, it means a lot."