The Yukon government suspended service without warning last month to cell phones it had provided to vulnerable women during the COVID-19 pandemic after users racked up data overage fees. Jeanie Dendys, the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate, said in an interview June 1 that the government made a “quick decision” to cut off service after higher-than-anticipated data usage resulted in significant fees. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Yukon government suspends phone program for vulnerable women after data overage issues

The Yukon government suspended service without warning last month to cell phones it had provided to vulnerable women during the COVID-19 pandemic after users racked up tens of thousands of dollars in data overage fees.

The government had announced April 3 that it would be providing, in collaboration with the Yukon Status of Women Council and Northwestel, 325 phones with calling, texting and data capabilities to women vulnerable to violence “in order to give them options to safely access the support they need.”

The program was scheduled to last four months, with the women taking ownership of the devices while the government covered the cost of a group phone plan.

However, the phones suddenly all lost connectivity on May 29.

Jeanie Dendys, the minister responsible for the Women’s Directorate, said in an interview June 1 that the government made a “quick decision” to cut off service after higher-than-anticipated data usage resulted in significant fees.

“It really had gotten to the point where we were depleting (funds for) the whole program before the end of the second month,” she said.

In an email, Yukon government spokesperson Stewart Burnett said that the group plan the government had with Bell included 975 GB of data a month, or 3 GB per phone.

However, the women had used 4,865GB of data one-and-a-half months in, Burnett wrote, which cost the Women’s Directorate $58,756.

The department had allocated, at the outset of the project, $52,000 to cover the entire four months.

“If that trend of data use continued, the program would have cost more than $156,000 for four months,” Burnett wrote.

The nature of the plan, Dendys said, made it impossible to limit the amount of data used by any given device, and the plan now, is to reinstate service to the phones but to only provide them with calling and texting capabilities — no data. She suggested that, with more businesses and public spaces starting to open up, women could use free wifi networks to access the internet instead.

Heidi Marion, the program coordinator for the Yukon Status of Women Council, said none of the women with phones were given any warning about the cut-off.

“I started getting phone calls and other agencies started getting phone calls from women saying, you know, ‘All of a sudden, my phone isn’t working!’” she said in an interview June 1.

“And we were thinking it was a technical glitch or, a lot of the women have never owned phones before, and so we thought maybe they were having a problem that could be rectified by just somebody who knew how to use a phone helping them … We were speechless when we found that this was a deliberate suspension on the part of the government.”

Marion said the program, up until then, had been well-received by the women it was helping and that the council had received “all kinds of wonderful responses” from women who could now call friends for support and help, or access webpages to apply for other support programs.

“We’ve had people burst out crying when they’re given the phones because it’s just meant so much to them in their situation,” she said, describing the program as a “real game-changer.”

Whitehorse resident Michelle Stimson told the News June 2 that she received a phone as part of the program about a month ago and described the “information availability” the data gave her — access to the latest COVID-19 updates for example, or missing persons cases — as “magic.”

However, she said her phone stopped working about a week ago.

“Not a notification, not a warning, not a, ‘Hey, too much data…’ It just stopped, and in the sense of not evening being able to text or call,” Stimson said.

“It’s like using your phone for one minute and the next minute it’s gone… I’m just a client that got a phone and felt really grateful, and then felt like I was slapped in the face.”

The library, where she normally goes to access wifi, is still closed, she noted, and her building doesn’t have wifi either.

Both Stimson and Marion said that while still having calling and texting capabilities was good, they’d like to see the government reinstate data for the remainder of the program as well, especially because women given the phones were told they would have data access for the entirety of the four months.

Dendys acknowledged that the “unplanned suspension of the program was really disruptive which was not what was intended.”

“It was just an issue that had come up and we had to deal with it immediately,” she said.

The government, she said, has “committed to a needs assessment and evaluation of the program” to determine what will happen at the end of the four months, and “ how to potentially provide other vulnerable Yukoners with phone and internet access at the planned end of the program.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

Corrections: A previous version of this story said the Yukon Status of Women Council did not receive a warning that service to the phones would be suspended. Council program coordinator Heidi Marion told the News June 4 that the government had, in fact, emailed the council on May 27, when 61 phones were initially taken offline. However, due to staff vacations, no one saw the email until after this story was first published.

The story also said the Yukon government announced the program on March 3. It had, in fact, announced the program on April 3. The News regrets the error.

CoronavirusYukon government

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Maria Metzen off the start line of the Yukon Dog Mushers Association’s sled dog race on Jan. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Mushers race in preparation for FirstMate Babe Southwick

The annual race is set for Feb. 12 and 13.

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Most Read