WINNIPEG -- Residents of northern Manitoba’s First Nations are expressing concerns over a lack of reliable internet and phone connections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a news release from the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (MKO), its First Nations have been dealing with persistent challenges in regards to communications infrastructure since before the virus arrived in northern Manitoba, but preparing to deal with the pandemic has brought on a deeper sense of urgency surrounding the issues.

“A major infrastructure issue we are dealing with now is the lack of reliable Internet and phone service,” said Grand Chief Garrison Settee in the release. “Our infrastructure issues are going to make or break our success when it comes to our ability to mitigate the impacts of the virus on the vulnerable citizens in our communities.”

Settee noted First Nations have been told to develop pandemic plans, but they are missing one important component: a reliable means of communication.

“I am worried this lack of access to a reliable communications system may have devastating impacts on First Nations citizens,” he said.

First Nations are receiving information on the pandemic through a number of sources, including emails, websites, social media and teleconferencing, but, the MKO said, many of them don’t have access to a reliable telephone connection.

“It is really disheartening that we are living in an age that we do not have the adequate Internet services that our people deserve,” said Settee.

“Those that have Internet, it’s very slow. It would have been better if we had the most adequate and reliable Internet services in our communities. It would make things much easier but right now this is not the case.”

Settee said they are urging the province to invest in the north in a way that isn’t divisive, and so that everyone can access the internet without it becoming political.

“The bottom line is Chiefs need to be able to communicate with Band members in a reliable way in emergency situations,” he said.

“Federal and provincial health leaders also need to be able to communicate with First Nations in a timely and reliable way in the event of an emergency.”