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Candidates gang up on Northwestel

Northwestel's monopoly over phone and internet services in the territory became a federal election issue yesterday, during an all-candidates debate organized by the Yukon College's student union.

Northwestel’s monopoly over phone and internet services in the territory became a federal election issue yesterday, during an all-candidates debate organized by the Yukon College’s student union.

The student MC asked each candidate what they would do to lower “unfair” internet and phone rates in the territory. While nobody called for the regulation of Northwestel’s internet activities, all candidates acknowledged high rates are a problem.

Kevin Barr, the NDP’s candidate, griped that the last time he had a problem with the company, they “shut down” their customer-care centre.

“That’s what corporations do,” said Barr. “It’s endless, how they’re trying to gouge us.”

Barr couldn’t recall what CRTC stood for (it’s the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), but he knew it should do more to regulate Big Green.

“We pay more than anyone,” he said.

Some Yukoners have taken to subscribing to cellphone deals in British Columbia and paying long-distance rates, rather than pay steep local rates, said Barr. And Northwestel’s rates are particularly tough for students to afford.

Northwestel’s basic telephone services are regulated but its internet services are not.

The company asserts high prices are needed to service such a big, remote territory. But Northwestel, which is wholly-owned by Bell Canada, doesn’t publicly disclose its internet earnings. Many customers can’t shake the feeling they’re being gouged.

Many Yukoners are particularly sore about the charges they face when they exceed their monthly data limit. Yukoners pay $10 per gigabyte.

In the provinces, Bell charges $2/GB. Or, if users pay $5 per month as “insurance,” these fees are reduced to just 13 cents/GB.

Bell also limits overages to $30 per month. Northwestel sets no such limit.

The rapid rise in popularity of internet video means it’s now far easier for customers to exceed their usage caps than it was several years ago. One high-definition TV show is typically around two GB, so it’s not difficult for Yukoners to rack-up hundreds of dollars in additional monthly fees.

Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell has helped several Yukoners complain to the CRTC about Northwestel, he said. He’s aware the company’s rates are “definitely a problem.”

But a study needs to be done before action is taken, said Bagnell.

The Liberals plan to bring broadband internet to all rural Canadians. But, as the Yukon is already connected, it’s unclear how that program would benefit the territory.

An MP in government would be in the best position to help Yukoners on this, said Conservative candidate Ryan Leef. He suggested that’s most likely to be himself.

Conservatives would help foster competition among internet companies to produce lower rates, said Leef. But he, too, backed away from offering a specific solution to reining in Northwestel.

“I think we need to do a thorough research paper on this,” said Leef.

The Green Party recently unveiled their internet policy. It, too, would work to see more internet providers compete, said Streicker.

Tuesday’s event, organized by the student union, was nearly a non-debate, with few instances of one candidate challenging another. Instead, they largely took turns rattling off the goodies their respective parties are offering voters.

About 50 students, staff and onlookers attended the event, lured, in part, by free stew and bannock on offer.

Leef’s pixelated face glowed on a projector screen. He was in Dawson City, appearing via videoconference.

Candidates were also asked for their thoughts on environmental protection, coalition governments, post-secondary education, aboriginal issues and more.

Bagnell ducked the coalition question, preferring instead to note the Liberals would make it tougher for the prime minister to prorogue Parliament.

They would also create an opportunity for citizens to pose questions during Question Period, “so it won’t always be the opposition parties asking questions,” said Bagnell. “It will be you.”

The NDP has long worked with other political parties, said Barr. “That’s why we have health care in Canada.” He expressed support for coalition rule.

Leef asserted that Canada’s political system works best with majority governments. “Parliament isn’t operating the way it should. There’s a lot of bickering,” said Leef.

“It’s not working for Yukoners, and we certainly deserve better.”

Streicker agreed, but he blamed the Conservatives for the distrust felt between the federal parties. He scolded the Conservatives for shutting down Parliament. “Those are people we’re hiring,” he said.

Streicker also wants the electoral system rejigged, so that the popular vote is more accurately reflected by the makeup of MPs. The Greens received nearly one million votes last election, yet didn’t win a single seat.

On the environment, the carbon tax that the Liberals floated last election was a “fine one,” said Streicker. “I wish we had stuck with it.”

Bagnell rattled out a list of the Liberals’ green commitments, which include a cap-and-trade system of reducing carbon emissions, more money to retrofit homes and a ban on oil development along Canada’s Arctic coast.

Barr enthused over how he’s able to drink clean water from Marsh Lake, near his house. The wilderness is “not for sale,” he said. “We’re a part of nature. We didn’t create this place.”

Yukoners are lucky to enjoy such clean air, said Leef. “There are some things we should pat ourselves on the back for,” he said. A large swath of the territory is already off-limits to development, he noted.

And the Conservatives’ $71-million payment towards expanding Mayo’s hydroelectric facilities will help reduce Yukon’s consumption of dirty diesel fuel.

“We didn’t inherit this land from our parents,” said Leef. “We’re borrowing it from our children.”

Streicker later challenged Leef’s assertion that Yukoners should vote for an MP in government. “We’re all Canadians,” he said. “Whatever government we elect should represent all Canadians.”

And, when the subject changed to rising health-care costs, Leef did his part to promote fitness by challenging all candidates to a footrace.

At least he didn’t ask for a cagefight. Besides being a long-distance runner, Leef is also a mixed-martial artist.

“Sure,” said Streicker.

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