If Telebec has its way, your phone bill will soon shoot up from $22.50 per month in 1997 to $36.90 in 2001. Tele bee, a phone company owned by Bell Canada, has applied for the rate increase in the Cree communities and other “high-cost” areas across the country.
A decision is expected next spring from the Canadian Radiotélévision and Telecommunications Commission.
Crees in Chisasibi have gotten together with Native and non-Native groups in Canada to spearhead a grassroots campaign against the rate hike.
One of the main Cree concerns is that Telebec gives free long-distance to Hydro-Quebec across James Bay, which means Crees are being asked to subsidize Hydro’s free phone use.
Instead, the Chisasibi representatives suggest Crees should get free long-distance within James Bay, too.
Also, they say, Telebec should hire more Crees as employees and give Cree communities better service. Right now, there is a serious problem in both areas, the Crees say.
They calculate that the $l4.40-per-month rate increase will cost Chisasibi alone over $100,000 a year more. For all the Cree communities in Quebec, the total increase will top $400,000 a year.
The Chisasibi people say they need support from other Crees to make their campaignmore effective. Below, two of the people involved make their case. -Ed.
In 1997, Telebec and other Canadian telephone companies asked the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for higher phone rates. For Telebec, the increase would be $14.40 per month more for home telephones before the year 2002. In response, there were objections from consumers and public organizations, such as the Council of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi and the Chisasibi Telecommunications Association. The CRTC postponed a decision on any increases after 1999 pending a hearing on costs, competition and service in “High-Cost Areas.”
We addressed a CRTC hearing in Val d’Or in June 1998. We expressed concerns about rates and unfair employment practices, including:
• Cree communities are charged the same monthly rates as non-Native settlements such as Radisson and Hydro work camps, but Cree communities receive inferior telephone services.
0 Telebec provides Hydro-Quebec with local numbers to call into the internal Hydro-Quebec phone system and get free long-distance calls across Quebec, and this service has been widely used by its employees, contractors and others without any Telebec charges for
inter-connection; for Cree communities, Telebec has kept any competing longdistance companies away with expensive service charges for inter-connection;
0 Telebec does not offer jobs for Cree technicians and service representatives who speak Cree; Telebec does not offer contracts for Cree construction crews.
At the hearing, Telebec not only asked to be granted its original request for rate increases, but also that all Canadians contribute to a new telecommunications tax that will subsidize it – an even greater increase. Ultimately, Telebec would like to receive between $53 and $120 per month for every telephone line, if the local rate and subsidy are added.
The Cree Nation of Chisasibi/ Chisasibi Telecommunications Association suggested that any subsidy should be used to keep rates affordable. Also, the subsidy should be managed for the benefit of rural telephone users by a committee of consumers, small communities including First Nations, public-interest bodies and regional telephone companies. Furthermore, all telecommunications services, both telephone and Internet, should be eligible for subsidies.
Our presentation addressed the interests of all Cree communities and entities. At the June 1998 hearing, we reflected the difficulties experienced by the hospital in Chisasibi (which serves all communities), the schools, the businesses and contractors who rely on longdistance to reach suppliers and clients. Other proposals that were suggested dealt with keeping phone rates at the same levels as those in urban areas, improving the quality of phone service, having local crews provide rapid repair and installation, and serving customers in the Cree language.
At the final CRTC hearing in Ottawa to be held on January 25, 1999, we will propose afair way of equalizing the service offered to Cree and non-Native communities. Ourproposal is to allow direct dialing between all of the Cree
communities (similar to the toll-free service between Radisson, LG-2, LG-1, LG-3 and Hydro’s Nemiskau power station). The benefits would include:
0 reduction in hospital communications costs by about $150,000 a year (better spent on health services), 0 reduction in costs for Councils and the Grand Council of the Crees for inter-community telecommunications, 0 greater access to Internet services, 0 increased opportunities for communication between individuals and families in the communities, etc.
Up to now, our presentation has been relatively effective. But it would be stronger if we have the support of the communities, Grand Council, the Cree entities and other national organizations. We have discussed these issues with other groups across Canada that spoke at these CRTC hearings on “Services to High-Cost Areas,” groups that oppose telephone company rate increases in their areas. Some of them are: the Consumers Association of Canada, B.C. Anti-Poverty Association, Wawatay Communications Society of Northern Ontario, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Manitoba Society of Seniors
Inc., Federation nationale des associations des consommateurs du Quebec, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc., and Tatlayoko Think Tank (B.C.)
Together we have drawn up a statement for the protection of the rights of telecommunications customers in rural areas called the Consumer Charter for a Connected Canada. In it, we call for:
0 rural and urban telephone rates to be similar and affordable, 0 a national subsidy for rural customers to use to offset future increases, 0 the consumers’ rights to affordable, high-quality telecommunications services.
This statement is being circulated across Canada. We ask you to join us in endorsing these goals and in supporting our proposals to the CRTC and to Telebec. We look forward to your encouragement.
Raymond Menarick is a representative of the Chisasibi TelecommunicationsAssociation and Jimmy Neacappo is a representative of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi.