It was decided. I was going to spend a summer in the bush. I’d come to Canada in the summer as I had every year after moving to the Middle East 18 years ago. I always missed the green. The air without humidity, and dust. The wild. This year was going to be unusual. I was going to pick berries and forage to save our lives; teach my little kids how to navigate without a GPS. Bake pies. Tie knots. After seeing the state of the old house, not lived in for 7 years, and before that by a hoarding hermit, my sister said it was impossible. I would never be able to do it. To live like that with some much wild around us, no one for miles. My dad said I’d have until Tuesday. All bets were in.
I am a Canadian girl. Spent summers in the north. I am no quitter. Without a landline reaching me, I’d done some research. Rogers had installed a new cellphone tower in the nearest village, Nipissing, about 20 minutes from our old homestead. We were sitting on 200 acres, with a 100 year-old house on a remote logger’s road, an area known for harboring American Vietnam draft dodgers in the 70s – no one would find them there! And a few short years ago, cellphone access was just a dream. Locals I’d chatted with who’d been in the region or on our property for maintenance said by all accounts I should get a cell phone signal at my place. Maybe one bar or two, but a signal no less. For me a signal means data, and for me an Internet connection is life or death. I could afford to stay a month in the middle of nowhere if I could work on essentials in order to keep my online businesses afloat. Otherwise I’d have to go back to suburbia where my parents live near Toronto.
On a trial run at my parent’s cottage on a nearby lake, 20 minutes down the road, I’d calculated my appetite for data. In three days applying basic Internet surfing habits for work and pleasure – an online video chat, some work on collaborative documents, uploading some photos to a publishing platform, a Netflix TV show and a few Spotify songs, I’d consumed 2 gigabytes worth of data. I couldn’t do piecemeal because I’d end up spending a thousand dollars over the month.
I needed a plan.
If I were to spend a month in the bush alone with two small kids, and black bears and raccoons clawing at the windows (not to mention the moose!), I’d need 40 gigabytes to play it safe. My cellphone signal in the bush was barely attainable, but when connected to data, I could Skype whoever I wanted with relative ease, even locals. I could find recipes for pies. I could figure out what mushrooms are poisonous; I could get us out of the bush when we get lost.
In what was to be the most expensive Internet transaction in my life, $350 for unlimited phone calls (who cares!) and 40GB of data, this was the best offer I could find in North Bay. If I were to last a month in the wild, I would have no choice but to cough up the cash like any addict.
Of course I lied to my family about the outrageous fee. My parents still hang in there with the $10 a month pay-as-you-go plan, and their phone is too old to get a signal in the north. Because they are afraid of unwanted charges and fees for using the phone, they turn it off most of the time. This means they aren’t really reachable in an emergency.
My sister turns her data on in the north about once a day to see if she has any direct messages on Facebook or Whatsapp. I couldn’t live like this. I was a data junkie and I knew it. But my experience in Northern Ontario for one month wouldn’t stop me comparing Canada’s Internet to the Developing World.
I live most of the time in Israel, also known as the Startup Nation for its advances in high-tech. You might have heard of Waze and other inventions from Israel. And today because of its openness and encouragement, I managed to start my own high-tech company that helps people in remote locations grow food. But that help also requires a data plan. We’d be foiled in Canada.
When I first visited Israel some 20 years ago I was appalled by how many people used cellphones. Everyone on the street, no matter their age, was walking and talking with little black rectangles in their ears. I found it rude and insensitive, but another part of me was enthralled by a nation’s willingness to communicate to stay connected. I’d just arrived there from Europe where few people had or used cellphones.
I was a late bloomer and succumbed to using a cellphone nine years ago. It was only since my son was born 5 years ago that I got a smartphone. All my Internet consumption was through my high-speed Wi-Fi connection at home. Today Israel has one of the highest rates of Internet usage, and thanks to public protests and reforms the country boasts one of the lowest costs per country for cellphone and data plans. We pay about $30 a month for a cellphone that has unlimited minutes and unlimited data. I am never slowed down by the Internet in Israel and it’s free everywhere. On the streets, in cafes. But you don’t need it if you have a local phone. Your low-cost coverage gives you complete freedom. Want to find my way on the road or a restaurant review, or live stream my kids on the beach? No issue at all. We’ve entered the future. Returning to Northern Ontario this summer, yeah okay there were bugs, the gravel roads, the bear warnings, lack of fresh produce. But people in the north are growing in awareness and education, much of it self-education. I’d come into contact with hyper-aware advanced people one could expect to meet on Queen Street in Toronto or at Berkeley in California.
But the cost of data for cell phones and Internet for people living in Northern Ontario is limiting everyone’s growth. There are few jobs to be done, so people end up bartering for firewood, or eggs. I’d love to spend months there. and I dream of it. Writing a book in nature, teaching the kids how to weave rugs. Yeats called his mythological home in Ireland Innisfree. I call mine Nipissing.
While there is a fat chance I can work in growing vegetables or selling homemade kombucha at a Farmer’s Market in Sturgeon Falls, I do dream about planting beans and raising honeybees, listening to the sounds of birds and trees crackling from mating moose, letting nature enfold me. I could make a good living in Northern Ontario working in high-tech where my location matters to no one. Of course there are people who will say that when you go to the north, one of the joys is that you are not connected. Maybe that was true once but not really anymore. Because people are now connected, just not well, and in a way that is discriminatory.
A friend of mine from Toronto, Cathy, just sold her snack food business and decided with her partner to invest in a lodge in the north. She likes to go there alone to forage for mushrooms on the weekends to decompress from the city life. She has created jobs for locals, including the Amish community nearby. But with a severe medical condition, she can’t live without Internet access, which she can only get when she takes a walk down to the bridge with her dogs about a mile away. There is always a satellite phone, with its high cost and limitations. She’s held out for now, leaving us sparse messages when she comes into town to fetch groceries.
My other friend Raven has been living in the bush near Powassan for 24 years. She’s far from the village but it’s her lifeline to supplies and the Internet. This village has been decreasing in population since I’d been going there 30 years ago. It got worse after a highway circumvented all the local villages, Sundridge, Trout Creek, South River, Callander cutting them off from tourism so their restaurants and shops die, but hey –– now you can get to Walmart in North Bay faster.
If you are told about my friend Raven, living off the grid on 77 acres, you might imagine a bush woman. She bakes cookies and tends a garden. She forages for food from the forest. But she also studies Buddhism and Quantum Physics, and gets books from the interlibrary loan system, but I have to be choosy when I decide what links to send her from the Internet. A YouTube video can eat up half her month’s budget for data, 2GB, podcasts less, but still data-hungry. I worry about sending her photos that might weigh more than a megabyte. I know that she uses her data sagely, and visits the library in Powassan 20 minutes away when she has to do something serious on the Internet. Thankfully the Internet there is free and unlimited. But isn’t it limiting to have to drive to your Internet? For me it would take 40 minutes. That’s like going from Downtown Toronto the airport to check your emails. And I’ve done it many times.
A neighbor at my parent’s cottage, moved from the city of North Bay to the country –– on a lake –- as a way to change pace. But as a game developer cannot get reliable, reasonably cost Internet to let him work from home. The lag is too slow. Unless, as he was told by Bell, that he invests $10,000 of his own money in helping them install lines for high-speed Internet access.
I was in India not long ago, and for 60GB a month (2GB a day) and unlimited calling in India, I paid about $10 Canadian dollars.
Canada has a problem. People who live in the north are intelligent. They are fierce, they are survivors and they appreciate the best of what Canada has to offer: fresh water, abundant wildness, good spirited neighbors who will help you in a jiffy if you ever need them. They are our lifelines to protecting what’s ours. Our own wild. You can’t compare this to living in a compressed single-family house with no property in the Greater Toronto Area. People there are cut off from nature.
I understand that one of the problems, and arguments that Bell, Rogers and the other cell phone companies is that Canada is a big country. It costs a couple or a few millions to install a cell phone tower to service rural populations. Usage of those towers will require steep fees, crippling fees to anyone who can never dream of getting home-based Wi-Fi cables. Cell phone Internet is the only option. But the government rather than owning this business has sold it to the highest bidder. Cell phone tower construction is privatized. Of course profits trump building better societies. I thought Canada was better than this.
While my summer and the reality I created for myself came with a lot of hard work: soul-searching, cleaning out raccoon dung from a house not lived in in 7 years, learning how to fire a rifle to keep the bears and moose away, my summer in the north turned out well thanks to the community of scattered people I met along the way –– but also thanks to those 40 gigabytes that helped me share, reach out, connect to people. With them, I could download songs in time of need, or to watch a TV show to keep the fear of being alone at bay.
Now, your neighbors in the north may live 3 miles down the road, or a 20-minute ride down the Alsace but they always have time for a chat, a walk around the forest or to teach you how to shoot a rifle. These same people I had met and come to love, had tried the Facebook app on their smart phones, and loved it, but the cost of data in the north, on their limited salaries, pensions or disability checks forced them to unplug Facebook, and for the most part connection to the Internet. Their smart phones are really just featureless without low-cost data access.
Maybe this is Mother Nature at work? Keeping the locals in Northern Ontario off Facebook to protect their way of life in the wild so they have time to bake cookies? Collect wild mushrooms? I was there for a month. I had all the time in the world to do those things, and even collect footage for a documentary movie, and meet more friends that some locals meet in 10 years. Those 40 gigabytes for me helped keep me grounded in the wild. To ask friends for words of support. Without them my dad would have won the bet. I would have been back to Newmarket and shopping at the mall on Monday.