I call the meeting to order.
Welcome to the 17th meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
Today's meeting is taking place in our usual hybrid format, pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021. For members on Zoom, remember that the order of speakers will be called by me and to mute your mike when you're not speaking.
I have some good news for you. Last night I was elected vice-chair of the Liaison Committee, which is, of course, the committee of all the chairs of all the committees. The status of women committee is punching above its weight again, and I'll be happy to represent it there.
Today we are returning to our study on challenges faced by women in rural communities. Each of our witnesses is going to have five minutes to make comments, and then we'll go into our rounds of questions. When you have one minute left you'll see the yellow pen. That will give you an idea of how much time you have.
I'd like to welcome our witnesses. Today, as individuals we have Adrienne Ivey, who is a farmer; Gail Kehler, who is a rancher; and Pamela Napper-Beamish from Lloydminster. We also have, from Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology, Melissa O'Brien, who is the manager of communications and stakeholder relations.
We will go in that order and start with Adrienne.
You have five minutes.
Thank you, Madam Chairperson.
Before I even start, I just want to apologize. This ties in very well with what I'm speaking about today, because my Internet connection is leaving a little to be desired today. Hopefully you can hear me and I'm clear, even if perhaps my voice doesn't match my lips.
I am Adrienne Ivey, a farmer and rancher, a mother of two teenage children and an agricultural advocate. I farm near Ituna in east central Saskatchewan, where we raise beef cattle as well as crops such as oats and canola.
It is very suiting that I'm speaking with you today, as this is a very important date. Today is Canada's Ag Day, a day to celebrate the healthy, nutritious and sustainable food grown across the country as well as the farmers and ranchers who grow it, but I'm not here today to speak on the good work we are doing as farmers. I am here to speak on the trials of remote rural living, which is especially disconnected during these extreme times of a global pandemic.
In these days of staying apart to stay safe, it has never been more apparent just how removed rural Canada is from the rest of our great country. Lack of connectivity has deeply affected our rural populations in ways never experienced before. As with many issues brought forward by COVID-19, rural women have been disproportionately affected by this.
At home on the ranch, we have struggled with reliable Internet and cellular service since long before the advent of the iPhone. As we watched technology develop and expand throughout our lives, we would never have guessed that decades later we would still be struggling with basics like online banking.
I reached out to the rural community to talk to them about this topic, and I was shocked at just how vast of an issue this is. From just outside of Vancouver to the prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, to the Atlantic provinces, rural women are struggling with connectivity. The stories from across Canada are eerily the same. Working from home combined with online learning has turned a bad Internet situation into a complete disaster. As mothers, it is devastating to watch our children struggle to keep up with their classmates online solely because of a lack of connectivity.
Beyond our children, we have more opportunities than ever to educate ourselves as women, but only if you can access the courses and webinars online. I have shuttered my agricultural communications business as I cannot count on a reliable connection, and for the limited data that we do have access to, I need to stockpile it for the days and weeks that our kids may require that data for online schooling. Knowing how much data I'm using today just to speak with you is very much top of mind, but this conversation is important.
In pre-pandemic days, any large Internet requirement, whether it be sending or receiving large files, virtual presentations or something as simple as FaceTime with family would mean a trip to the city to borrow a restaurant's or business's Internet. Just picture that for a moment, driving a hundred kilometres just to send a file. That is normal for rural living.
The next issue is the current cost. After paying hundreds and often thousands of dollars for equipment and installation, the monthly cost of rural Internet is enormous. For our household alone, we balance four cellphones as well as a satellite provider just to have enough data for the basics. Our cost for that is $600 a month, yet for that cost, we often run out of data and cannot perform the most simple of online tasks.
As a society, we have some brilliant ways of maintaining our lives while social distancing: virtual health care, online therapy, Zoom social gatherings, virtual gyms and places of worship and ordering groceries online. While that is a list to be proud of as a country, sadly, it is a list that strikes anxiety into the hearts of rural women. We cannot access most of these things on any given day.
Moving forward, Internet and cellular service must be viewed in the same light as electricity, as a basic necessity of life.
I'd like to thank Rosemarie for inviting me to this.
I understood it would be issues facing women. An issue that's facing me in my area is that rural crime has skyrocketed lately, so I want to talk about that.
I am not a public speaker, so this is really unusual for me to try this.
My husband and I are beef ranchers. We have property in lots of different areas around our farm. I have to travel up to 20 kilometres to get to my fields to check my cows and to do farm work.
The nearest RCMP detachment is a good 20 minutes drive from here. If I run into trespassers or whatever on my property, I have to deal with it for quite a while before I know any help will arrive. Our area doesn't have street signs or road signs in most places. You have to tell the police or any help to come by directions. It's like when I moved here from the city and I thought, I can't believe anyone can find anything, yet the police are required to try to navigate to places where they've never been before and to come when we have issues.
Last fall, and actually in the past year, our neighbourhood was targeted by thieves like we've never seen before. It's been outrageous. They come and they steal your vehicle.
We've had to put up security cameras and gates, and they'll smash right through the gates. We put up a bar across our shop door so they couldn't smash that in, and then they just broke a window and climbed through the window. When we speak to the RCMP, they tell us that their hands are really tied because when they arrest the perpetrators, they go to the justice system, the justice system gives them a slap on the wrist and they're out again to come and do their shenanigans all over again. The perpetrators seem to know that the consequences aren't very great. It would be really nice to hear that we could have some sort of backup from the police when these things happen.
Basically, I'm not following my notes that great, but it's easy to hear a story and think, it's just stuff that they're taking, but property theft is more than that. It hits you in the heart. It changes the way you think about neighbours coming by or vehicles that you meet on the road. People think, that's why you have insurance, or it's just stuff and you can replace it. But anyone who's ever tried to collect insurance knows that your premiums go up. It costs you money besides the feeling that you've been invaded. It feels like a life and death situation when someone breaks into your place. You feel like your family is threatened, and you don't feel safe anymore.
My hope is that there will be some solutions coming towards higher penalties for the thieves and feeling like the police can do their jobs better.
I appreciate that you've taken time to listen to me this morning.
Good morning, Madam Chair, and committee members. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak.
My name is Pamela Beamish and I live in a rural area located near Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. We own and operate a fourth-generation grain farm where we continue to raise our family. In addition to the farm, I run a life coaching business in my home, so I am able to assist my son who lives with Down Syndrome while he attends our local high school.
The reason I am here is to speak of my experience with criminal activity as a woman, mother and an involved community member in our area. As well, we have women who have lived their entire lives on their rural property and did not once think that they would be experiencing the effects of criminal activity to the extent there is currently. In addition, for seniors or for persons who are less mobile, they have every right to enjoy their latter years where they worked so hard to build and enjoy.
I have been able to remain at home to raise our children, but now I have a greater role in protecting our children, our home and our property. When it comes to criminal activity in our area, which—
I've been able to remain at home to raise our children, but now I have a greater role in protecting our children, our home and our property. When it comes to criminal activity in our area, this is a great concern, not only for us and our community's safety but also for our mental well-being and, of course, the monetary cost of what is suffered over and over again. Add in the ridiculous, penalizing carbon tax and the government's refusing to support our oil industry and this affects thousands and thousands of families trying to put food on their tables.
I also would like to speak about the justice system. The prosecutor's office stated that they see over 600 files per month in the North Battleford office, which equals 7,200 or more cases per year. The waiting time for our case, in particular, was 16 months from the time the break-in took place to the time it finally reached the prosecutor's office. That's 16 months to have that same criminal continue doing what he or she is doing. As a mother, my first concern is my children's safety, as anyone would agree. That being said, when you have a child living with Down syndrome, that concern becomes a hundredfold. You would assume that home is a safe place to be, but not when it feels like a lockdown where someone has to be present at all times.
My son was totally oblivious to what was going on during this time frame. In some ways it was a blessing, but mostly it was difficult. Any kid in the country loves the space and scenery for playing, walks and bike rides. His bike was locked up from Wednesday to Sunday on long weekends, and Thursday evening to Sunday on regular weeks, as we never knew who would be coming over the hill under the influence of drugs or alcohol, with a stolen vehicle. Strangers would just walk in out of nowhere, sometimes high and drunk. Simple, normal day-to-day tasks became, and are still are, a planned and strategic routine where the locking of the house and buildings has to be in place just to mow the lawn, step out to the garden, go for a walk with the dog or play with the kids.
These break-ins are not limited to nightfall, as even our cameras have recorded suspects coming in at 9 a.m., assuming I wasn't home during a weekday. They brought their arms up to conceal their faces so the cameras couldn't see them, not realizing that I was there. Seconds after entering our shop area, our cameras got footage of their backing out and taking off. These criminals are carrying more than just a tool to break in. There are pepper sprays, knives, guns and machetes.
In our break-in, a machete was the weapon of choice, but who knows what was in the SUV. Things can change in an instant, depending on their mental state or if they're under the influence of drugs. This topic is getting very old when it comes to a criminal justice system that no longer serves our provinces when it comes to repeat offenders or gang activity. This criminal activity affects everyone in the area, near and far. Our communities are constantly being hit as the criminals rotate their selected areas of choice. Poor weather seems to be a breather for us.
You know you're going to get hit at some point, if not several times. With this activity, you just don't know when and what it's going to cost you this time around. It can escalate from stolen fuel, or the ignorance of pouring your fuel on the ground, to the theft or damaging of equipment to houses being broken into.
We, as citizens and taxpayers, are extremely frustrated as this has been going on for years and is out of control. I feel that the RCMP are just as frustrated as we are, and it's an increased workload and taxpayers' money. We have spent over $30,000 in security cameras alone, as well as $12,000 in special doors for our shop and building. We pay $100 per month for SecurTek service. As the first witness described, our bills for downloading security cameras is enormous.
When it comes to insurance deductibles and premiums, when you're running a business it's pretty tough to keep up with the cost of rising insurance premiums, especially when you're continuously getting hit. These costs are not covered. How long will insurance companies allow us to be even covered, or how long will it be before insurance becomes so out of reach due to increased expenses that the courts don't deem part of the sentence?
Insurance coverage is required to be able to purchase or lease equipment. Banks aren't going to give a loan without insurance. Our insurance, from 2018-20—in three years—increased by $13,900. A friend's landscaping deductible was $500, and in four years it has increased to $5,000.
Thank you, Madam Chair and committee members.
My name is Melissa O'Brien and I am the manager of communications and stakeholder relations for Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology, also known as SWIFT.
SWIFT is a non-profit, municipally led broadband expansion project created to improve Internet connectivity in underserved communities across southwestern Ontario. SWIFT was created by the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus and is currently overseeing a $210-million project in southwestern Ontario. The Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario have each committed up to $63.7 million to support the project.
Per the Statistics Canada 2016 census profile, the population of SWIFT's region is 3.6 million people, roughly 10% of Canada's population. Of those, 372,000 lack access to fast, reliable Internet. This deficiency, caused by market failure in the rural broadband sector, impacts businesses, families and women throughout the region, leaving them at an economic and social disadvantage when compared with their urban counterparts.
At no time before now has there been such unanimous agreement on the need for broadband service in rural Canada. COVID-19 has changed life as we know it. With many more people now required to work from home, education increasingly being offered remotely, video conferencing replacing face-to-face interactions and health services and programs continuing to move to online platforms, access to high-speed Internet has now become essential.
Connectivity challenges, which have long plagued smaller communities, have been magnified by the health crisis, which has further highlighted the digital disparities between urban and rural living.
The federal government has recognized that those who live in rural areas and within first nations communities experience a greater digital divide and are paying much more for slower, less reliable Internet than are those who reside in urban areas. For women living in rural communities, the lack of access to reliable and affordable broadband has formed employment barriers, caused missed education opportunities and created challenges to accessing social services and online digital resources and information for many.
COVID-19 has disproportionally had economic impacts on women and has led to the deepening of pre-existing inequalities. Women who are living in rural areas without access to broadband service in their homes are at a greater disadvantage when it comes to finding and securing employment.
We have heard from women all across southwestern Ontario who are struggling as a result of the lack of Internet connectivity in their communities, with many, who have expressed frustration with their inability to access the required bandwidth and Internet speeds needed to support remote working, stating that it could have negative impacts on current and future employment opportunities for them.
Furthermore, women who are the head of single-parent families are also more likely to be employed part time or may use the Internet to start a home business to provide them with flexible work arrangements so they are able to maintain their role as the primary caregiver while generating an income. Where there are connectivity resource constraints within the home, e-commerce opportunities become significantly impeded. As well, affordability of service can also be a limiting factor.
Finally, poor or, in some cases, almost non-existent network connections and lack of access to affordable digital technologies can lead to gaps in digital skills and literacy among women in underserved communities. As the global workforce continues to become increasingly digitalized, lack of connectivity in rural areas may reinforce the marginalization of women.
If broadband is a superhighway to opportunity, then ensuring that rural communities have greater access to high-speed service is key to aiding women in overcoming social and economic barriers. Equitable and affordable connectivity is vital for empowering women and can be a powerful tool for creating a greater space for female inclusion in today's ever-growing digital society.
As a result, I have three general recommendations that I'd like to share with you today. First, as a basic necessity, and many would say as an essential service, broadband needs to be available to all Canadians regardless of where they live.
Second, Internet service needs to be affordable, especially for low-income or single-parent families. Currently the federal government, in partnership with Internet service providers, has established the connecting families initiative, a low-cost Internet program. It's important that ongoing support be provided to such programs or similar initiatives to ensure that those who are struggling to afford reliable Internet service are provided with equal opportunity to benefit from high-speed connectivity.
Last, digital empowerment is as important as connecting women to the Internet. Promoting and supporting female digital skills training and literacy play important roles, enabling greater participation in today's technology-driven world.
Again, I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.
On your first question, across rural Canada, the level of Internet access is extremely variable. It very much depends on where old systems started and where pathways happened to have fallen. It has very little to do with where people actually live and it certainly has nothing to do with the demographics of who are most in need. When I think about farmyards as well as communities like first nations, there are very few populations across Canada who actually have what urban people would consider a workable Internet situation.
As for how that is impacting us directly, you name it. In today's day and age, everything is done online. We can sometimes take part in a small number of those things online, but we can never be assured that the Internet will work on a given day. Even this morning, trying to log in to speak with all of you, I was not sure that the Internet gods were going to be with me today, so that I could speak with you.
The unreliability is absolutely immense, yet we're paying triple, five times or sometimes 10 times as much per month for the Internet that we have, unfortunately.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thanks to every one of you for joining us here today.
I'm saying hello from western Newfoundland. As my colleagues have heard me say many times, my riding is bigger than Switzerland. I have over 200 beautiful small communities. The largest community has 19,000 people and the smallest has 42. When you talk about rural there is rural, and then there is really rural. Trust me. I understand all the challenges of living in rural, but I also understand the beautiful opportunities of living in rural because I wouldn't trade it for anything, even if my Internet can be spotty sometimes, too.
First, I want to address the issue with the RCMP and the provinces. It's funny because I was speaking about this in my riding yesterday. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador and in many provinces, especially out west, the province has the agreement with the RCMP to deliver services in rural. In Newfoundland and Labrador the province pays 70% and the RCMP only pays 30%, but the RCMP get their marching orders, their mandate letter if you want to call it that, from the province.
You should look into that in your area, as well. I'm having that conversation now in my area, but you need to look into it because the two go hand-in-hand, and we do need to address it. I think you need to get the province in on that conversation as well.
I agree with everything you say on connectivity. It's such an important issue for health care, small business, education, safety, general connection to family and friends, and for the tourism industry. We all know how incredible it is, and we all have to have it. It's the new thing.
I loved 's line when she said John A. Macdonald connected the country with a railway and now we have the connection with the Internet. Being connected is a top priority for our government.
Under the connect to innovate program, Saskatchewan received over $22 million, and that's going to put over 13,000 households on track this year. The other thing we've done that you may not know is that we developed Canada's first connectivity strategy. That uses all our tools in our tool boxes with several different coordinated initiatives to make sure we get all Canada connected, and we made a commitment that by 2026 we will have 98% of Canada connected. The latest one that I'm excited about is the universal broadband fund, which was announced in November. That was a $1.75 billion investment to help households get connected.
As you have all said so eloquently, the pandemic added such urgency to how we need to get it done more quickly, and that's why we developed the rapid response stream as part of the universal broadband fund. That carved out $150 million to get shovel-ready projects in the ground, to get communities connected by this coming November. Projects all across the country are being approved already.
Another challenge you all touched on when you spoke on connectivity is the cost of Internet. When the department oversees all these applications, affordability and community support are key considerations in the assessment project. They are putting a great lens on that.
We added a pathfinder service, and its use will tell you how successful it's been. I'm sure you have communities in your area, just as I do, that have probably one paid employee on their town council and right now she has to decide when to shovel, when to put the mail in the box or what application she has to apply for, so we put the pathfinder service in place.
As of last week, the pathfinder service had over 1,800 inquiries and the response time is two days or under. That's great. There's a 1-800 number or an online service that communities or businesses or small ISP, small Internet service providers, can call to say they have a question about their town or how they work with their neighbouring town to make sure they have Internet service providers that want to connect to their area. The pathfinder service is working well and it is helping people to connect Canadians.
To let you know what projects are out there, there is $2 billion in the Infrastructure Bank that the major Internet service providers can apply for, $1 billion for the original universal broadband fund, $600 million through low earth orbit satellites, $585 million to connect to innovate through ISED, $750 million through CRTC, and another $355 million in a rural and northern stream.
Also, then, there's a first nation infrastructure fund. To date, that's connected I think 119 indigenous communities.
We have many tools in our tool box because our country is so different from coast to coast to coast. You have rolling plains out your way, with beautiful canola fields. Here, I have gorgeous mountains, and our Internet service providers say, “Oh my golly, can we go through them instead of over them?”
We need a variety of tools to make sure that we get all Canadians connected. I encourage you to go online. There's a great site in the department, where they basically have a lens and they can look right down on the country and they tell you exactly what the speeds are in your area, and what they actually are, not what the Internet service provider says they are.
When the department did a test for me, they showed my area and my backyard here. I was amazed. It goes into 250 metres. What was good about it...well, not good, really, because they said, “My golly, two miles down the road you have great connectivity.”
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I want to thank all the witnesses for being here today to discuss this important issue, the challenges faced by women in rural communities.
Apart from the big city of Granby, the riding I represent, Shefford, is mainly made up of small rural communities. They're absolutely lovely. I've lived in small towns before. I take pride in living in a rural area, but I'm very aware of the challenges that go along with that.
I want to discuss some of those challenges.
The Standing Committee on the Status of Women has spent a lot of time talking about how much women need reliable Internet access in order to stay in touch, receive services and connect with people.
We are aware of the so-called pole war that has hurt the broadband program. We realize that connecting a pole on the last concession road in a remote small town is much more expensive than doing the same in a city.
What could the government have done to offset that cost difference?
I'd like to hear what Ms. Ivey and Ms. O'Brien have to say.
I think it's a very good question.
I know that for our project the determining factor was whether you go out and try to connect more of the underserved premises or start with the ones that are further away and cost more. That's a decision that needs to be made across the board when you're looking at broadband funding. Again, is it to get more of the underserved connected or is it the farther-reaching ones? I guess that is the question in terms of how you move forward. I think all levels of government—whether it be at the federal, the provincial or the municipal level—are looking at addressing that.
I don't believe that any household should be left behind and be further marginalized and become vulnerable, especially those in the rural hamlets and villages. I hear from women across our project region who are constantly feeling frustrated with the lack of reliable Internet that's available to their houses. They especially are struggling, as the other witnesses have touched upon, when there is online schooling taking place, as well as remote working.
They're struggling. That is a very good question: How we get them all connected as quickly as possible? I believe that all levels of government are working together to find that solution.
Thank you. I love that question. That is an excellent question.
Farming definitely utilizes far more technology than ever before, and it's something farmers are really excited about and want to embrace. Part of using technology comes with data management. We have so much information we're compiling on each of our farms right now that has to do with soil health, animal health and even the metrics around the finances of the farm. We have all this information, but because we can't collect it in a timely manner from our equipment, we cannot make decisions based on that information, even though it's at our fingertips. We just don't have the Internet capability to really analyze all that information.
When it comes to affording the actual technology you're speaking about—whether it's GPS systems in our tractors or monitoring some of our animal health systems—we're already paying for that technology even though we can't use it. The tractors and combines all come with that stuff in them. It's not even an option. We utilize it to the small extent we can, but if we had more connectivity on the farm, we would be able to utilize these amazing tools that we're already paying for.
The sky is the limit when it comes to technology in farming, and I'm so excited to see where it takes us. However, we're a very long way from being able to utilize what we already have, let alone what we're going to see in the future.
That need to constantly be competitive, the idea of the family farm versus more of the larger industrial farms.... There is that competition requirement, so to keep up is key in terms of that industry, I understand.
Ms. O'Brien, I actually had the opportunity to participate or listen in on the presentation by the members of SWIFT. I think it was a couple of weeks ago. Being in southwestern Ontario, of course, it's a huge concern for me. While my riding is very urban-suburban, it certainly is impactful on all of that community that surrounds us and the supports that the surrounding area has to come into London to receive, unfortunately.
Some of the requests that you had of the federal government.... There was a lot of information given by my Liberal colleague in terms of what's available. However, you're very well aware of what is and what isn't. One of the concerns that you had, of course, was with regard to the universal broadband fund, the CRTC funds in southwestern Ontario. You mentioned that you cover 10% of the population that is underserved; however, you've received none of that funding. Is that correct?
I think about offering training to empower women and girls to use technology and make the most of the digital opportunities that are available.
I think about smaller communities that maybe didn't have access to high-speed Internet now getting access to high-speed Internet. How can they participate, create and innovate while these opportunities are becoming available to them?
I think of senior women who maybe now are becoming more online and are not aware of the services, apps or how to utilize those technologies, whether it's to create a network, a community of their own, or to leverage different apps that maybe are health apps. Maybe it's about having additional training available and making them aware that this is an option.
I think of e-commerce, of their starting their own online businesses. We talk about a gig economy. Freelancing is a big opportunity, especially for women who may be parents or taking care of elderly citizens. We go back to the fact that a lot of part-time work is happening. It's having those e-commerce opportunities and understanding, first, that they're available and, second, how they can be utilized to have more women's economic activity happening.
Technology is a key and a solution to that, but training is a big aspect to empowering them, to making them even aware of what's available to them.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ms. Zahid, thank you for giving me your speaking time.
Thank you, as well, to the witnesses for being here today.
We agree with you wholeheartedly, of course. We understand what you're going through, especially the problems with the Internet, but also the crime. Being from northern Ontario, I haven't had the same experience as you have, in Saskatchewan, when it comes to crime, so I'd like to know more about that.
My first question is for Melissa. I'm looking at your website, and you indicated you received $210 million. About $63 million came from the federal government and $63 million came from the province. I want to make sure I understand that you have received $63 million from the federal government. I want to clarify that point and then I'll ask another question.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to our witnesses today. All four of you have substantiated and clarified some of the realities women in rural areas face.
I want to shift the focus back to elderly women for a moment. They're being told to use the Internet to connect and stay in touch with friends and family. We need to take a hard look at what Internet service is costing them. To make ends meet, they shouldn't have to choose between buying groceries or paying their Internet bill to stay in touch with their family. Bringing down the cost of Internet service is something we really need to keep an eye on.
My next question is for whoever would like to answer.
On the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, we talk about an economic she-covery and the importance of ensuring women in rural areas have the same opportunities as women in urban areas. That means connectivity, yes, but also transportation.
How could the government invest more in transportation infrastructure for rural communities, not just urban areas? Do you have other suggestions to help women access more business opportunities?
Would anyone like to comment on the importance of doing more to help women start businesses, or the continuing gap between the opportunities available to women in urban areas and those available to women in rural communities?