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Join us today for panels on rural broadband, parks, and rural transit!

Today’s SHIFT: Connect Panels featured speakers on services and infrastructure, and the way organizations have adapted service delivery during COVID.

At 12pm ADT, our rural broadband panel (Rob McMahon, Sally Braun, Penny Carpenter, and Tim Whiteduck–read their bios here) are members of the First Mile non-profit (www.firstmile.ca). Rob is an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, and the co-founder of First Mile. Sally is the General Manager of the Western James Bay Telecom Network, based in Moose Factory and Timmins ON, which helps many communities in Northern Ontario obtain access to fiber internet, even though the business models do not support it, which requires her organization to raise money and obtain some funding from governments. Affordable access is also challenging because usually installation costs include future maintenance of the network. Penny is the Network Business Manager, K-Net Kuhkenah Network in Sioux Lookout, Ontario–K-Net was first interested in bringing digital medical care to Northern Ontario communities, while Tim (Director of the First Nations Education Council in Quebec City) was successful in getting the support of different levels of government, including the CRTC. The FNEC prepared an online education which helped Tim’s group prioritize their needs. Despite the initial successes of all these groups, funding is still not stable to continue the work and Tim noted that there needs to be a federal fund that communities can access to maintain and expand their access. Tim and Sally reminded us that today is Affordable Internet Day of Action.

At 1pm our panelists on parks and recreation (Soonya Quon, Jessica McDonald, Ryan MacLean). Soonya a manager with the Parks Canada developing policies and tools, including public education. During COVID visits to national parks dropped by 82% and 62% for national historic sites because of travel restrictions, especially in places where most visitors are from out of province. This had a major effect on the sustainability of our parks. Mood Walks for Mental Health is a program to get adolescents and youth into parks in Ontario: 83% of Parks Canada survey respondents wanted to get out into nature away from their neighbourhood, 80% said it was important for their mental health and 78% said it was important for their physical health. Soonya also mentioned that 45 Parks Canada places are actively co-managed with First Nations. Ryan was with the NS Nature Trust working with volunteers advocating for access to nature, and is now working for Upland Studio as an engagement coordinator. Her work with the NS Nature Trust focused on conserving privately owned lands of ecological significance (as 79% of land in the province, including our coastline, is privately owned, the opposite of provinces like BC and Ontario). She mentioned that there was an 800% increase in emails about volunteering for the Nature Trust about a month or so after COVID-19 struck, which led to more sessions to accommodate social distancing to train volunteers. Jessica is managing the community energy investment fund for the Town of Bridgewater. She noted that Bridgewater reclassified some of their facilities in parks as trails so they could stay open during provincial restrictions in the first month of COVID-19–even the cemetery became well-used. The Town loaned out equipment and installed a cleaning protocol when they were returned, created competitions like a scavenger hunt and snowman building contest to get people using parks, and created a guide to help direct the Town in the future use of the parks. All three mentioned that stewardship issues became an issue due to people needing to social distance on trails (e.g. stepping off trails into lichens or other sensitive species habitat) and from increased use from people outside their neighbourhoods.

At 6pm, Dr. Ahsan Habib from Daltrac spoke about the shift in transportation during COVID. One of his projects mined Twitter data to see what people felt about public transit, cycling, driving, and reopening the economy. For example, Twitter users were saying that cars were a safe way to travel as was cycling, while transit was not the preferred option (major terms used were masks, restrictions, etc.) From the perspective of users, common observations were the effects of the lockdown on commuting to work, there wasn’t enough space to cycle and socially distance, and how much working from home was an effective transportation demand management (TDM) strategy. The second project looked at activity modelling to predict what would happen during lockdown, reopening phase 1 and reopening phase 2 by adjusting travel by each mode, and travel for leisure purposes. The panel on rural transit featured providers from Ontario and NS (Kris Wiszniak, Mackenzie Childs, Marilyn Bird, Natalie Smith). Kieron Hunt (FBM) worked on a Main Streets Initiative in rural communities and moderated the session. Marilyn (Lanark Transit Services) noted that their large land area requires an automated software to allow them to combine trips for their on-demand trips (mainly for health appointments), but trip combining couldn’t be done during COVID to allow social distancing. They haven’t seen a return to their pre-COVID ridership numbers, partly because they use a 16-person vehicle, and they don’t run service to access employment. Natalie (Town of Yarmouth) said they ensured hospitals were served by the transit service when it was first developed. Mackenzie (Town of Bridgewater) noted that health care appointments were the main reason people would use their transit service, in addition to day cares and day camps who would take kids on outings. During COVID ridership decreased but has started to climb again. Kris (Town of Collingwood) noted their fixed-route system (first developed in 1982) was built to serve the local health centre and employment areas, and the main decrease was due to the lack of work at the ski hill and lack of tourism. They’re doing an overhaul of their system and their initial public consultation is suggesting modifications to be more adaptable and collaborate with nearby municipalities. Part of the challenge for rural communities is providing services to/from destinations outside of their boundaries, and several (including Yarmouth and Bridgewater) started as pilot projects and had to turn to the public to show their support for the system to keep it running past the pilot phase.

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