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As 9-1-1 becomes law, attention turns to NWT cell coverage

A telecommunications tower is pictured in downtown Yellowknife on March 12, 2019
A telecommunications tower is pictured in downtown Yellowknife on March 12, 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Northwest Territories residents will be able to dial 9-1-1 in emergencies, at last, after legislation creating the service was passed by territorial politicians.

The inability to dial 9-1-1 has been a complaint in the NWT for decades. Famously, telecoms company Bell was forced to settle a class-action lawsuit after billing NWT residents for a 9-1-1 service that did not exist.

Legislation passed on Monday mandates telecoms carriers, the NWT’s municipal authorities, the territorial government, and emergency service providers to take part in the new service, which is scheduled to go live in June 2019 – though much work remains to prepare for its introduction.

The service is being operated on a full cost-recovery basis, which means the territorial government and telecoms companies will recoup 9-1-1’s costs through a fee added to the bills of those companies’ customers.



What that fee will be has not been published, but will be defined in regulations accompanying the legislation before the service goes live.

Legislation states anyone refusing to pay the fee could be fined up to $1,000, or up to $10,000 in the case of a corporation. Similar fees are charged across Canada – in the past, the NWT government has described the coming fee as “small” and “nominal”.

The service will be available in all 11 official languages of the NWT, and in all 33 NWT communities.

The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which is responsible for implementing 9-1-1, is preparing a dedicated call centre and hiring staff. A public awareness campaign and system testing will follow.



“I still think that there is a lot of work to be done,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, “in terms of implementation and working very closely with our community governments, particularly here in Yellowknife, where the centre is going to be located, in terms of how calls are handled and so on.”

Service ‘is sporadic around town’

The campaign to introduce 9-1-1 to the Northwest Territories has been decades in the making. (Calling that number at present does not work – residents must call local numbers to reach emergency services instead.)

The concept of 9-1-1 has been mentioned at least once in the legislature nearly every year since Paul Delorey, then the MLA for Hay River North, raised the issue in February 2001.

In full: Read the legislation creating NWT 9-1-1

More information: 9-1-1 implementation plan / MACA FAQ

However, rolling out the service this summer does not solve some broader problems.

A committee touring the territory to seek public input on 9-1-1 heard from residents who questioned how effective the service can be, given the NWT’s limited cellular coverage.

In Fort McPherson, former NWT premier Richard Nerysoo “pointed out that cell service is sporadic around town and that smaller communities won’t benefit from 9-1-1 if they don’t have the infrastructure,” Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely recalled last month.



In a written submission, the Hamlet of Tulita asked whether the territorial government would be lobbying Bell to install more cell towers along NWT highways.

Speaking this week, Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart said the legislation alone “could not address many of the issues that will be required for 9-1-1 coverage to be a success.”

The example most often cited is some form of incident along the many stretches of NWT highway that don’t currently possess cell service.

“The concern is that, if there is an accident there, it won’t matter if you have 9-1-1 or not if you can’t get a cell signal on your phone,” said Testart.

“It is imperative that we improve this communications infrastructure in the Northwest Territories.”

A motion passed in the legislature this week calls on the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs and the Department of Finance “to develop a strategic approach designed to secure support and funding to expand cellular coverage in the Northwest Territories.”

Giving the NWT’s highways cell coverage would be a costly project. The NWT is already pursuing a range of big-ticket infrastructure funding requests with the federal government, such as for the Mackenzie Valley Highway, Slave Geological Province access corridor, and Taltson hydro expansion.

Alfred Moses, the minister responsible, did not directly address that motion this week in the legislature but did say: “Being the first year that we are going to be rolling this out, we want to do it right.

“We will be monitoring and evaluating the program, and we will commit to keeping [NWT politicians] apprised of the rollout of 9-1-1.”