Manitoba top judges talk Internet connection for First Nations communities

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (July 31, 2023, 4:20 PM EDT) -- Manitoba’s chief justice and its top provincial court judge are praising government investment in Internet connectivity for the province’s northern First Nations communities but continue to note the need for greater access for all residents.

Chief Justice Marianne Rivoalen and Provincial Court Chief Justice Ryan Rolston recently commented on the Manitoba government’s announcement that it will provide $100,000 for high-speed Internet in eight First Nations communities and one youth centre in the province’s remote north.

According to a government news release, the money is coming from the Criminal Property Forfeiter Fund (CPFF) and will help the Manitoba Chiefs of Police and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) to establish the connections.

Chief Justice Marianne Rivoalen

Chief Justice Marianne Rivoalen

The CPFF seizes and liquidates assets obtained by crime and uses the funds generated to increase public safety, among other things. Earlier this month, it was used to give Winnipeg police more than $1 million for new technology, equipment and “trauma training.”

According to the release, “Starlink” technology will be used to support the connections. It goes on to state that the Internet “will allow for increased access to virtual court appearances making access to the justice system easier for those in the communities.”

Manitoba’s Indigenous account for 18 per cent of the province’s population, with a significant number living in northern communities. Manitoba has the largest Indigenous population of all Canada’s provinces — not including the territories.  

Earlier this month, Manitoba’s Office of the Auditor General (OAG) issued a report on the efficiency of the provincial court. Among other findings, it stated that a lack of Internet connectivity “negatively impacts access to justice in Northern Manitoba.”

The report noted that only 1.8 per cent of First Nations communities in the province have access to high-speed Internet.  

“The unequal distribution of technological resources, such as access to reliable internet … can intensify the unequal access to justice, including court services, hearings, and opportunities to communicate with counsel,” it states, noting this was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when courthouses — along with pretty much everything else — shuttered as part of public health measures.

“In June 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada’s Chief Justice publicly stated the importance of modernizing and innovating the legal system, cautioning against a return to pre-pandemic ways of conducting business,” it goes on to state. “The Chief Justice stated that access to justice is not only a fundamental right or service, but also a basic human need and an essential element of democracy.”

Provincial Court Chief Justice Rolston, appointed that bench’s top judge in April, welcomed both the OAG report and the government’s Internet investment.

“The Provincial Court welcomes innovative solutions including the introduction of technology such as the Starlink system where appropriate,” states Justice Rolston. “Access to justice for all Manitobans remains of the highest priority for our court, and we welcome the OAG’s insights as our Court continues to explore ways to reduce delay and enhance our judicial services.”

Manitoba Chief Justice Rivoalen, who was appointed in June, also weighed in.

“While the OAG report relates specifically to court services to Provincial Court, where the challenges of connectivity are most felt, access to justice for all Manitobans remains of the highest priority to the Courts overall,” she said. “Innovative solutions including the introduction of technology and associated tools to facilitate connection can only serve to increase access to justice for all Manitobans.”

In June, Chief Justice Rivoalen called Internet connectivity the “major solution” to improving access to justice in Manitoba’s north.

One of the communities to receive Starlink connectivity is Shamattawa First Nation. In November 2022, the provincial court announced it had to pull out of Shamattawa due to a lack of utilities — such as water and heat — in a number of the community’s buildings. It could not immediately be confirmed if the Shamattawa situation has since changed.

The other First Nations to receive Internet connection include:
  • Misipawistik Cree Nation, Grand Rapids
  • Chemawawin Cree Nation, Easterville
  • Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Pukatawagan
  • Mosakahiken Cree Nation, Moose Lake
  • Bunibonibee Cree Nation, Oxford House
  • Northlands Denesuline First Nation, Lac Brochet
  • Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Split Lake

The MKO Youth Healing Lodge in Thompson will also be connected. The lodge increases justice supports for youth in the north by providing various culturally centred resources.

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