Op-ed: Community Access One Pillar of a Digital Economy

April 6, 2010

Community access one pillar of a digital economy

By Marita Moll

On March 16, after three days of intense public pressure following a decision to cut funding to most of Canada’s community access sites (CAP), Industry Minister Tony Clement declared it all a misunderstanding.  The program was reinstated.  It wasn’t quite as dramatic as the backlash over the proposed changes to the wording of the national anthem, but it was a cliff hanger for the thousands of people who use these sites daily for everything from engaging in independent studies, connecting to government programs,  or setting up small businesses to market local products. 

Over three days in the House of Commons, opposition members grilled the government on its intentions concerning this program which would be gutted under the proposed new terms  – that sites would only be funded if they were more than 25 km. from a public library.  “For a 15 year program, at 40 cents a pop for each Canadian, can we not stand up for it and allow Canadians to have access to the Internet?” asked liberal MP Roger Cuzner.  This hardworking but very low profile program has never had so much press.  But the broad based concern over its imminent demise demonstrates that it has become part of the Canadian vision of life in a digital age.  The message is: we need to bring everyone with us and we expect our government to facilitate this.

The $14M currently allocated to the program has been restored, at least for this year.  So, do we replay this drama next year?  It seems entirely likely.  The Throne Speech mentioned the government’s intention to present a “digital economy” strategy.  According to press reports, it has held more than twenty meetings with members of the influential Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), an association which represents 1300 large IT firms including incumbent telephone and cable companies. Not a single meeting has been held with public interest groups. Is it any wonder that “misunderstandings” happen.  Citizens are not just consumers, they are creators and innovators – pushing the envelope of social, cultural and economic change in all directions.  So a small community in Nunavut called Sanikiluaq promotes its fishskin dolls through a CAP site in a daycare center which also offers online higher education to students who would otherwise have to leave the community. A group of youth in Wolfville, Nova Scotia reach out with a community radio station in a CAP site attached to a local library.  The Community Computer Lab in South Etobicoke, Ontario is a CAP site which offers assistance with job search, homework and government services and a site in an elementary school in Vancouver offers web-based reading programs for immigrant parents who are learning to read in English. With projects like this, CAP has successfully assisted an estimated 20 million people over 16 years to learn to live and work in a digital age. Although it has been described in many recent media reports as a program primarily designed to address the needs of rural Canadians, these sites are just as  well established in large cities across the country.

Communities have been astonishingly successful at leveraging  the $5-6,000 they receive annually from the federal government into many thousands of dollars from other sources, both public and private.  Joe’s Place, a CAP site which has grown into a youth centre in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, has just won $50,000 in a national competition run by the Aviva Community Fund to build a community kitchen. The 3000 CAP sites across Canada have, by every internal and external evaluation available, performed well beyond expectations.  Having lost our edge on international measures of connectivity such as affordability and speed, this is one program that actually acts as a model other countries seek to replicate.

Industry Canada Minister Tony Clement quickly pulled it out of the fire, but Canadians now expect him to put CAP back where it belongs among Industry Canada’s established programs and recognize it as one of the pillars of a digital economy.  Marshall McLuhan was right – we create the technology and then it recreates us. And along the way, we recreate government.

Marita Moll is a telecom policy researcher and member of the board of Telecommunities Canada.

Published in Straight Goods, April 14, 2010
Community Access restored; Industry Minister backs away from slashing public Internet access sites.