Posted on July 3, 2020
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic requires people to socially and physically distance, but doing so, for atleast the most vulnerable communities, comes at a cost. And that cost is, among so many other essential things, to have access to the internet.
ACORN Canada, an independent national organization of low and moderate income families has been fighting for affordable internet. After years of campaigning and advocacy, ACORN members won some government support but the program falls short on many counts — a fact that’s now reinforced by the ongoing pandemic.
We spoke with ACORN Members across the country to understand their struggles in accessing this essential service. These testimonies unequivocally point to the need for affordable and reliable internet for all Canadians and that the need is greater than ever. However, two aspects bind these testimonies: One, that it’s just not affordable for far too many Canadians; and second, people who cannot afford it are those who are among the most vulnerable — those living in poverty, those with disabilities, seniors, single parents and many others.
As Corey Daniels, an Ottawa ACORN member, whose only source of income is the Ontario Disability Support Program says, “The government needs to understand that just because winter boots are available, it doesn’t mean that I can afford to buy them from the Bay. In the same vein, just because the internet is there, doesn’t mean I can access it. It’s such a false assumption!”. Her son, who has a learning disability, was able to complete his semester but because he couldn’t attend his online classes, he might have to repeat his semester. When we asked if she approached his school, she said, “even if we get a laptop, what will I use it for? They are not giving free internet”.
Many ACORN members feel that the world has completely changed during COVID-19 but the governments have not adequately responded to ensure that people have the required support they need. Tatiana Boss, a member from BC says “I’ve no choice. Internet is a lifeline. I cannot even take my appointments or do anything without it.” She was part of a pilot affordable internet program and when it suddenly stopped, her internet bill shot up from 11 dollars to 96 dollars!
Toronto ACORN won a program that provides affordable internet to people who live in Toronto Community housing. Alejandro Gonzales Rendon, a member from Toronto ACORN feels lucky. “Thankfully, the TCH has the Internet for Success program with Rogers. We got this program because we, as Toronto ACORN, put pressure on the city. I pay 12 dollars for the internet, which is affordable. I’ve been taking online appointments with my doctor. Especially for people like us who are not native English speakers, I’m able to explain myself. I also filed my taxes online for the first time!”
Is asking for accessible, affordable and reliable internet too much to ask for and what does affordable mean?
Claudette Gadoury from Hamilton ACORN defines it for herself. “For me affordable internet means 1 dollar a day with no overage charges. I am neither asking for any privileges nor am I asking for any free service. Why can’t these multi million dollar companies give us affordable internet?”
While some people are able to go to the public library to access the internet in non-COVID times, it’s not an option for several others like Lorraine Pryce from Ottawa ACORN. “In our building, we have a computer on the top floor, so I can use youtube or zoom or anything. But, there are days when my health isn’t good at all, that’s when I need the internet on my lap, not an elevator or steps away”.
ACORN members helped win the Connecting Families Program which is implemented by the Federal Government along with a select number of “voluntary internet service providers”. But when we spoke with our members, it’s amply clear that the program needs a complete overhaul.
A mother of three, Line Debege, a Montreal ACORN member who herself is also studying needs the internet at all times. “When we received the letter telling us that we were entitled to the internet support program at $10 internet per month, we found it interesting. A bell technician came and told us our internet bill will cost 71 dollars as the program wouldn’t cover our devices. So, we agreed with Bell to freeze our bill to 40 dollars… But the next bills increased up to 50 and 100 dollars without any change in our consumption”.
Natalie Cole, another member of Peel ACORN, who was also offered this program, chose not to opt in because the internet speed is too low.
So where do we go from here and what are we demanding?
ACORN members from Alberta, BC, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia got together at the offices of liberal MPs and did social distancing as well as virtual actions on 16 June to demand Internet for All. The national day of action was attended by over 100 members. On the zoom call, members called Trudeau’s chief of staff and Minister Bains office, leaving messages.
The Federal Government’s Connecting Families Program not only fails to meet its very objective as it reaches only a select few families with children (the process of selection of these families not public), but it also leaves out millions of other low-income Canadians without this critical service.
As Claudette says, “There are some affordable internet programs for families but nothing for single people like us”.
ACORN Canada is calling for Internet access for All. We are asking governments to take urgent action to provide FREE Internet for all low-income Canadians and fixed-income seniors during the “pandemic and recovery period”; and 10 dollar internet thereafter to ensure that all low income people have access to affordable internet.
Hope the government, the CRTC and the telecom companies are listening!
This article is from Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, Chair of East York Chapter, Toronto ACORN. To read ACORN Member testimonies, click here
The article was originally published on The Medium.com