How a Thunder Bay cellphone drive launched a movement to make digital access a human right

·5 min read

What started off as a cellphone drive for people with limited income in Thunder Bay, Ont., has quickly grown into a provincial coalition that is calling on the federal and provincial governments to recognize digital access as a human right.

When the pandemic first took hold in Canada, restrictions meant businesses, social service agencies and public places were forced to close.

Most of society moved forward, with people working virtually from home and doctor's appointments taking place over the phone or video chat.

But a group of agencies in Thunder Bay, Ont., stayed focused on the people being left behind as they saw the digital divide grew; People living on low incomes, in precarious housing or homeless who lost their ability to connect when facilities like libraries and resource centres with free internet and computer access were forced to shut their doors.

Submitted by: Tracey MacKinnon
Submitted by: Tracey MacKinnon

Tracey MacKinnon, an anti-poverty activist with experience living homeless and without regular digital access, described that connection as "a lifeline."

"For someone who is homeless, or someone who's trying to get their life back together, getting out of rehab ... that access to technology to be able to access information, that's vital. That's survival," MacKinnon said.

Angie Lynch, the lead coordinator for the newly-formed Championing Access to Technology for Individuals Living in Poverty coalition, said access to technology became essential during the pandemic.

"If they needed to access food security, if they needed to access a doctor, mental health appointments, harm reduction ... for all that, you needed a phone. And if you didn't have a phone, you were out of luck."

Cellphone drive takes shape

Recognizing the immediate need to get vulnerable populations access to technology, the Breaking Down Barriers Working Group with the NorWest Community Health Centres jumped into action with a goal of getting 500 phones in peoples' hands.

Agencies asked the public to donate old cellphones, it partnered up with regional telecommunications provider TbayTel to pay for voice and data plans until June, and more than 100 phones were distributed within a few days to people in need.

It was a start, but not enough.

With some free time on her hands due to the pandemic, Lynch reached out to her network across the province about the issue of digital access.

Amy Hadley/CBC
Amy Hadley/CBC

When the Canadian Mental Health Association published a profile of the coalition's initiative, Lynch said she had agencies from all over Ontario contacting her to talk about how they could support people in their own cities and regions.

On May 31, the coalition sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and a number of other federal and provincial cabinet ministers.

The letter, signed by almost 100 agencies working with vulnerable populations from all over Ontario, outlined how the ability of the agencies to provide services had changed because of the pandemic, making digital access "an absolute requirement for the people we serve."

Coalition not waiting for government to act

According to Lynch, neither level of government has responded — yet, but the lack of response hasn't stopped the coalition's members from pushing forward however they can.

The Thunder Bay District Social Services Administrative Board (TBDSSAB) has picked up the tab to pay for the phone plans already distributed in the city until the end of September.

Bill Bradica, chief administrative officer of the TBDSSAB, said his board also submitted a proposal for a delegation at the upcoming virtual Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in August to "advocate to the province to look at setting up a program to assist vulnerable individuals with accessing a program that would provide devices and low-cost plans that they'd be able to participate in."

Bradica added that there are some low-cost internet and mobile plans available through the federal government's Connecting Families program and through various telecommunications companies in the province, but they aren't widely available to all people with low incomes.

While many agencies are concerned about individuals not being able to reach out and connect with services or support programs, Anita Jean from the NorWest Community Health Centres is also worried about her organization's inability to reach its clients to provide health services.

In new data provided to CBC News, Jean said that one-third of all people served by the centre do not have a phone number listed. That amounts to 4500 clients, including those accessing walk-in and harm reduction services.

"We have no way to get in touch with them. You can imagine that as a primary care provider, we're not going to be using electronic means like Facebook to reach out to folks. It's not compliant with privacy laws. It would be a phone call. So the client is very much isolated, and we're very much reliant upon them coming to our site."

supplied by Anita Jean
supplied by Anita Jean

As part of their work with the coalition, NorWest is developing a funding proposal it will submit to the Red Cross this month to create a "prescription for IT"

The funding would allow the organization to "equip individuals that are most likely to succeed in their ability to benefit from a computer if we can provide the initial set-up and supplying of equipment, provide some training and support, and subsidize the internet access for a few months," said Jean.

For Lynch, all of this work is really about achieving "economic and social justice, so that everybody has equal access to what they need to live a good life."