Satellite Brings Telephones to Fort Severn

In 1973, the first satellite dish for community phones was set up in Fort Severn by a local technician and visiting technicians working with Bell Canada. The government paid Bell millions of dollars (one source recalls it was $54 million) to provide the satellite service that would allow for community members to have home telephones.

Having the satellite for telephone services led to significant changes in the way Fort Severn community residents connected with each other and the outside world. This included having home phones, using phones for community service delivery, and using fax machines that operate on the phone lines.

Home phones in Fort Severn

All the homes in Fort Severn – about 40 or 50 at the time – had phones installed soon after the satellite was set up. Several community members recall that it was very exciting to have home phones for the first time. Because there were so few homes on the community service, each home phone number had only two numbers, like 39 or 13.

At that time, there was no direct phone dialing, so calling a phone number outside the community still required going through an operator first. Having the ability to phone outside the community made a significant difference in the lives of many community members. For example, they could connect with their children in high school in Thunder Bay or Sioux Lookout, or they could call a friend or family member in the hospital far away.

Community members of course also used the new phone system to connect with other First Nations communities to speak with friends and relatives at a distance for the first time. From that time on, news spread much more quickly among and inside communities. One community member recalled that just about everybody wanted to have a telephone to know what was going on.

Not everyone found it easy to use and adjust to the new phone service. One community member recalled that his grandparents had a hard time using it because they had never had anything like it, and it took them a while to become comfortable with it.

Community members have expressed different opinions about whether the telephone service made connections among community members better or worse. On the positive side, everyone was able to find out information about community events, and communicate easily with others instead of being on their own. On the negative side, having a telephone in all the homes in Fort Severn meant that people started phoning each more and more other instead of visiting in person. Some of the personal connection was lost. However having phones meant it was easier to phone ahead to find out if the person was home before going over to visit in person, especially if that person lived all the way at the end of town.

During a recent interview, one community member explained:

“There's good and bad. Like people, at first, would visit each other and help each other. When they didn't have phones they would go to their houses and communicate and help that person out anyway and just visit. And then when phones came around, they just pick up the phone and just talk on the phone for anything.”

Using telephones to deliver services

Telephones are of course not only used in community homes. All the community services in Fort Severn – such as the health centre, the school, and the band office - had telephones installed when the satellite came to Fort Severn, and all continue to use telephones. Staff members use telephones often and regularly to do their work. Some of the outside services they communicate with do not use the Internet, so phones remain important for community service delivery.

Many of the community services in Fort Severn use VOIP phones - Voice Over Internet
Protocol. These phones are connected to the broadband coming into the building and are less expensive to use than ordinary phones because long-distance calls use the broadband Internet connection instead of costly phone lines.

Fax machines

All the Fort Severn community services offices installed fax machines when they became widely available. Fax machines use the telephone lines. Some community homes with small businesses also installed fax machines. One community resident recalled that her father’s home business had a fax machine, and she used it to send letters out to her parents when they were away in the neighbouring community of Big Trout Lake.

A number of community residents used fax machines when taking distance education courses; for example students would fax their lessons out to instructors at Lakehead University, as well as mailing them out.

Community services offices in Fort Severn still use the fax machine regularly. They send notices around to the different offices in the community by fax. Fax is also used to connect with external organizations and government offices. In some cases, email would be more convenient but some of the external government organizations they work with do not use email, and so fax is the main way to connect with them.

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