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This article was published 29/8/2018 (819 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SCANTERBURY — A project to provide high-speed internet to all Manitoba First Nations using fibre-optic cables is hung up over who should be awarded the contract.

Ottawa is expected to announce as early as this Friday it plans to proceed with a telecommunications firm that excludes all but one First Nation from the process.

That has the more than 60 other First Nations upset. There was originally a plan in place that would include the other First Nations, allowing them to share in future revenues and ensuring that Indigenous people have first dibs on jobs.

A company with First Nation ownership would also give First Nations a say in the setting of rates for internet services, said David Crate, chief of Fisher River Cree Nation.

"This is unfair and uncalled for," said Crate, of the lack of First Nation control over the project.

Crate, vice-chair of the First Nation board for the project, made the comments at a press conference Tuesday at the South Beach Casino Hotel in Scanterbury.

"We have come to an impasse and cannot enter into an agreement that will not benefit First Nations economically," he said.

A spokesman for the federal government said representatives are only meeting with stakeholders in Manitoba on Friday and the government will not be making an announcement.

Ottawa agreed in January to give $30 million to a group made up of the Manitoba First Nations and a partnership between Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and Virden-based telecommunications firm RFNOW Inc.

The money is from Ottawa’s $500-million Connect to Innovate fund to bring high-speed internet to rural and remote communities. But the group has since fallen apart because the First Nations say RFNOW wanted too much control over the project.

What bothers the First Nations is the federal Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development remains committed to the RFNOW-Mathias Colomb partnership.

Meanwhile, the other First Nations have formed a new partnership that includes Broadband Communications North, a company that already provides internet to numerous remote First Nations using towers to send telecommunication signals off existing Manitoba Hydro fibre-optic cables.

Further complicating matters is the RFNOW-Mathias Colomb entity has kept most of the original name of the former alliance.

The original name was Clear Sky Connections, collectively owned by the more than 60 Manitoba First Nations. The RFNOW-Mathias Colomb partnership has only changed the last word to form Clear Sky Communications.

"We actually asked them recently to stop using that name," Crate said.

Manitoba chiefs have sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Brian Pallister that outlines their concerns and requests a meeting.

The project is estimated to cost in the $300-million range. It would use some of Manitoba Hydro’s fibre-optic lines that provide broadband services to its hydroelectric dams.

That is being done now using telecommunication towers.

However, the project would run cable over rugged Canadian Shield terrain.

Clear Sky Connections is the largest Indigenous-owned telecommunications network in Canada.

Many First Nations lack adequate, affordable and reliable internet connection, said Betsy Kennedy, chief of War Lake First Nation near Gillam.

"It would make a real difference in our community. Not too long ago it took six days to download a movie," she said.

Internet is improved now but still lacking by using telecommunications towers to relay signals from Manitoba Hydro fibre-optic cables.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca