Yes, the 988 mental crisis hotline will work in all Northern communities, Northwestel confirms

·3 min read
A volunteer takes a call at the Crisis Centre of B.C at their office in Vancouver in October of 2020. As of Nov. 30, 2023, a three-digit hotline will be available across Canada for mental health and suicide prevention support. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A volunteer takes a call at the Crisis Centre of B.C at their office in Vancouver in October of 2020. As of Nov. 30, 2023, a three-digit hotline will be available across Canada for mental health and suicide prevention support. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

When the new 988 mental crisis and suicide prevention hotline rolls out across Canada next year, all communities in the Yukon, N.W.T. and Nunavut will have access to it.

Catherine Newsome, a senior communications manager for Northwestel, confirmed in an email Tuesday that the telecom plans to implement the three-digit hotline in every Northern community by Nov. 30, 2023.

While some communities around Yellowknife will need to move to mandatory 10-digit dialing — meaning people will have to dial the area code for all calls — seven-digit dialing will still be available in other areas in all three territories.

"In Yellowknife, Behchokǫ̀, Whatı̀ and Dettah, some local phone numbers begin with 9-8-8," Newsome explained.

"We will transition these four communities to mandatory 10-digit dialing by May 31, 2023."

She said the telecom plans to reach out to impacted customers directly "to support them through this change."

Hotline to help reduce barriers

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced on Aug. 31 it would be implementing the three-digit number for the hotline.

When it's up and running, people can call or text 988 free of charge if they need immediate mental health help.

While the CRTC's role is to require telecoms to implement the number, the hotline itself will be managed federally. Following the Aug. 31 announcement, the Public Health Agency of Canada announced it's tapping the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to lead and co-ordinate service delivery for the hotline.

In a news release, the CRTC said the three-digit number would help to "reduce barriers to mental health and suicide prevention resources."

In an email to CBC, CRTC media relations manager Patricia Valladao wrote that the implementation of the hotline is a complex matter.

She said it means telecommunication companies have to modify their networks and replace some equipment, which is why the CRTC has set a date of Nov. 30, 2023, for the number to be live.

Northwestel asked for 'modified implementation' of 10-digit dialing

The CRTC's telecom regulatory policy for the hotline notes the commission approved an application from Northwestel to keep the option of seven-digit dialing in regions outside the Yellowknife area.

In its application, Northwestel told the commission that keeping seven-digit-dialing in much of the North would allow it to bring in the three-digit hotline number more quickly. Otherwise, the telecom would have to send technicians to 24 remote sites, including 21 fly-in communities, for about a week at a time.

The commission also directed that telecoms would bear any costs of transitioning to 10-digit local dialing in the Yellowknife area, as well as the costs of calls to 988, without passing the costs on to users. The costs of texting 988 will be borne by wireless service providers.

By Sept. 30, telecommunication companies will need to file a plan with the commission about how they are going to communicate the change to 10-digit dialing within the four communities affected.

That communication will have to include sign language as well as the Indigenous languages used in those areas.