Canada’s newest minister says high-speed internet is a ‘necessity’ but can she deliver in rural areas?

Click to play video: 'Digital disadvantage rural Canadians face without internet access'
Digital disadvantage rural Canadians face without internet access
WATCH: Digital disadvantage rural Canadians face without internet access – Jan 31, 2019

In Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, people are hoping a new federal government ministry will deliver faster internet speeds.

The valley is known for stunning scenery, fertile farmland and a slower pace of life than urban centres.

But when it comes to the internet, slow is not a good thing.

Dave Wood sighs heavily, as he explains the rude surprise which awaited him and his wife, when they moved into their new duplex in the tiny community of Upper Dyke, just north of Kentville, N.S., in 2015.

“When we first moved in, it came and went,” says Wood, referring to their high-speed internet service.

READ MORE: Digital economy on the rise in Atlantic Canada, rural areas still lagging

Wood says download speeds have since improved. But at times, the only streaming at their home are streams of profanities, when a lack of bandwidth freezes a movie or kicks them off websites.

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Other parts of rural Canada share his frustration.

A patchwork of government-funded upgrades hasn’t kept up, leaving many internet users at a disadvantage, even for completing routine tasks, like applying for jobs or pursuing medical treatment.

John Lohr, Progressive Conservative MLA for Kings North, says fast, reliable internet is crucial.

“It’s a death knell to that small community if that option isn’t there. People will move out.”

A population shift is already well underway.

In the mid-19th-century, more than 80 per cent of Canadians lived in rural areas.

WATCH: SaskTel speeding up the internet in 43 rural communities

Click to play video: 'SaskTel speeding up Internet in 43 rural communities'
SaskTel speeding up Internet in 43 rural communities

In recent years, the percentage has dwindled to less than 20 per cent. Some small towns have been forced to dissolve because they cannot afford to pay for policing and other services.

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“We have to boost numbers, that’s a reality, in our rural communities,” says Bernadette Jordan, the Nova Scotia Liberal Member of Parliament who has just been appointed Canada’s first-ever minister of Rural Economic Development.

Jordan’s mandate letter, from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, includes instructions to “lead work to increase high-speed broadband coverage in rural Canada,” and to “work with the Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility to improve Canada Post services in rural and remote areas.”

Jordan downplays critics’ suggestions the ministry is political window-dressing, to keep rural seats in the October election.

She says she’s focused on solving issues like broadband internet.

“This isn’t a luxury. This is a necessity. It’s 2019. We have people who want to live and work in rural Canada and can’t, because they don’t have good access to the internet,” she said.

Jordan suggests Canadians should not expect widespread funding announcements, suggesting her first priority is developing a strategy for developing rural economies.

“I don’t know about the buckets of money going to places to shore up for an election because I do have a short runway and one of the things I have to do is develop that strategy. So what does it look like to help boost the rural economy?”

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READ MORE: High speed internet to be provided to the remotest Alberta communities

Unlike many of her cabinet colleagues, Jordan’s ministry is not a full-fledged department. She has a handful of staff, shares a deputy minister with Infrastructure Canada, and it’s unclear if her ministry will have its own budget.

There’s no cheap fix. But Dave Wood hopes the government’s emphasis on rural Canada is more than lip service.

“I don’t know where the money’s coming from, other than from you and I. But it’s probably better than some of the things they spend money on.”

A 2013 government estimate said extending high-speed service to all of Canada would cost well over $1 billion.

A hefty bill for a government promising more attention for rural citizens.

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