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High-speed internet will be a ‘game-changer’ for remote Indigenous communities

Rapid Lynx project will connect five fly-in First Nations via 700km fibre-optic, long-haul line

Wayne Slipperjack recalled the early days, in the late 1990s, of dial-up internet in Eabametoong First Nation: the telltale crackling as a signal was sent over the phone line, followed by the agonizingly drawn-out wait while a file downloaded.

“It was slow at the time, but we never really complained about it, because we thought, ‘We’ve got internet – it’s good enough,’” said Slipperjack, who now lives in Thunder Bay.

But in an era when everything from commerce to education to health care is conducted online, “good enough” is no longer adequate, and the Matawa First Nations tribal council is now on track to hook up Eabametoong and four neighbouring communities to high-speed internet by 2023.

Rapid Lynx involves the construction of a 700-kilometre, long-haul fibre-optic broadband network that, when complete, will provide lightning fast access to residents in the fly-in communities of Eabametoong, Nibinamik, Neskantaga, Webequie, and Marten Falls.

The provincial and federal governments teamed up to provide $67 million toward the project in 2017, and construction began in 2020.

What was once a distant hope for residents in the area is now nearing reality, and Slipperjack was unequivocal about the impact this project will have.

“With high-speed coming to the region in the next couple of years, there’ll be a lot of changes and a lot of people doing whatever it is they do (now) online,” said Slipperjack, who’s the manager-in-training at Rapid Lynx.

“It’s a game-changer for a lot of the communities in the Matawa region.”

Slipperjack joined a panel of industry experts to speak about the Rapid Lynx project during a virtual annual general meeting and forum hosted by the Anishnawbe Business Professional Association (ABPA) on Oct. 6.

This year’s theme, ‘Stronger Together,’ focused on impactful partnerships and how collaboration can help Indigenous communities become key players in the Ontario economy.

A key partnership established for the Rapid Lynx project is with Magellan Advisors LLC, a Denver, CO-based firm that helps communities plan, design and build fibre networks.

Sherry McCuller, a Magellan senior consultant who’s been working on Rapid Lynx since 2017, said it’s not enough to just install fibre-optics and build the infrastructure around it.

Communities also have to be well versed in how to leverage the new opportunities high-speed internet presents.

“When Rapid Lynx is complete, it’s going to rival the speed and capacity of communications networks formerly accessible only in the larger cities in Canada,” McCuller said.

“The question becomes, now that we have it, what do we do with it?”

Some of the more immediate answers include accessing essential services like health care, skills training, and education, she noted.

But there will also be opportunities to participate in the digital economy – used by more than four billion people globally – while modernizing and expanding into new markets.

“Rapid Lynx will support expansion and diversification of economic development in the Matawa First Nations while also protecting their unique natural environment and cultural heritage, which is one of the best things about the digital economy,” McCuller said.

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First, however, the community has to strengthen its digital literacy and practical support for new participants: how do you develop a website? Which online marketplace is best for your purposes? How do you navigate the rules of international shipping?

Matawa has already begun this work, educating economic development managers to help them understand the advantage of high-speed and how they can use it to attract and retain new business to the communities, McCuller said.

They’re also developing bursaries to attract students with an interest to further their studies in information and communications technology (ICT).

McCuller predicted the arrival of faster internet would result in mutually beneficial partnerships between Matawa and private sector investors in the region.

“Matawa First Nations management welcomes ongoing discussions with businesses and investors interested in the region to explore ways that Rapid Lynx can accelerate jobs and economic development in the region,” she said.

Two companies already eyeing those opportunities are Inspire Resources and Tamarack Mining Services.

Both fairly new to the mining industry, they propose similar approaches to resource extraction, in which Indigenous communities become active participants in the projects from the onset. In both cases, high-speed internet is required to fulfill their visions.

As it stands now, said Kyle Pearce, Vancouver-based Inspire Resources is “very dissatisfied” with the current approach to mining.

“Our goal is to turn the value proposition of mining on its head,” said Pearce, Inspire’s vice-president of community integration.

“So instead of resource mining companies coming to remote communities, extracting as many resources to generate value for shareholders who live a long ways away, we view the purpose of mining as generating resources for communities to have long-term sustainable development.”

Since the mineral resources are often located in or near the communities, they should be designing, managing and planning for the remediation of the resources alongside the companies, Pearce said.

To reduce the negative impacts of resource extraction projects, Inspire envisions engineering new and diverse mine designs that reduce the footprint of the mine, right from the start of a project through drilling and processing.

High-speed internet access also sets the stage to establish local and regional supply chains and get local people trained for work in the industry.

“The broadband that you’re bringing into a community will enable people to be more quickly trained, to have more access to information and upgrades, and this is, of course, a benefit for community jobs and for the overall development of the mine,” Pearce said.

Toronto-based Tamarack Mining Services isn’t a mining company, but it’s also looking at the industry from a new perspective.

Self-described as “the world’s first group purchasing organization for the mining industry,” Tamarack figures out how entire regions can benefit from establishing a single supply chain. That’s the flip side of how mines traditionally do things.

But Lee Barter, Tamarack’s founder and chief operating officer, believes it’s a strategy that creates a “more inclusive and strategic, and possibly safer and more efficient, supply chain for mines.”

Through Tamarack’s approach, a community may be able to establish expertise that serves multiple mines over generations, instead of just serving one mine for the life of the operation.

“If you have high-speed internet in a community, that changes the dynamic,” Barter said.

“Communities that are experienced in working with mines now are linked to every other mine on the planet.”

Over the last 18 months, the globe has learned that much work can be done away from the office, and Barter said a similar setup can be established for providing services to a mine.

With high-speed internet, communities have more opportunities to outsource services to mines in other regions, provinces or even countries, he said.

“We believe IBA (impact benefit agreement) holders have a different supply chain engagement because they can take skills that they have developed by working with one mine and actually sell them onward to other mines,” Barter said.

“That decouples the community’s business or that economic opportunity to the finite life of a single mine.”

Whatever opportunities arise, Wayne Slipperjack knows life will be different with faster internet.

Crafters can sell their wares not just locally, but around the globe, while hunters and trappers can get online right from their outpost camp.

For the first five years, Matawa will oversee operation of the network. In that time period, people from each of the communities will be trained to take over, so that it will eventually be fully owned and operated by the member communities.

It will be a steep learning curve, but Slipperjack believes the region is ready.

“Once it’s completed, there will be a lot of changes in our communities,” he said. “There will be a lot of excitement, because this will be a lot better for our communities than what they’re currently getting.”