First Nation Specialists in broadcasting and telecommunications

By Rajitha Sivakumaran


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FirstTel Communications Corporation occupies a special niche in the telecommunication industry — it is wholly owned by the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve of Manitoulin Island, the world’s largest freshwater island located in Northern Ontario. The history of the area echoes other stories of aboriginal-colonialist interactions, but the present-day outcome is far from the dilapidation and cultural ruin that was once predicted.

In 1836, the Bond Head Treaty was invoked to encourage the First Nations people of Upper Canada to migrate to Manitoulin Island. Here was an opportunity to return to a more traditional lifestyle, undisturbed by colonial settlements. A large-scale migration did not come to pass, but there were communities already present on the island, such as the Odawa. As time passed, the Odawa, amalgamating with the Ojibway and Pottawatomi nations, gave rise to the Three Fires Confederacy (Wikwemikong band).

A few years ago marked the 150th anniversary of the McDougall Treaty, which allowed non-Native groups to enter Manitoulin Island. The Wikwemikong did not sign the treaty, which is why their land is now known as the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, meaning that the land has not been surrendered to the crown.

Contrary to the prediction of Sir Francis Bond Head, a 19th-century soldier and colonial administrator, the First Nation populations of Ontario have not vanished like snow before the April sun. Instead, the community has thrived and was even recognized as one of the Cultural Capitals of Canada by the Department of Canadian Heritage. On the entrepreneurial side of things, Aboriginal-owned businesses have sprouted up successfully, with FirstTel being one of them.

A member of the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, FirstTel has served as the community’s first link to phone services since being founded in 2003. It caters to both residential and commercial clients. Competitive rates and zero hidden fees draw in residents, while businesses receive the added perks of teleconferencing and advertising opportunities on a community WikyTV5 channel that is operated by FirstTel for the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve and the Wikwemikong Development Commission. Although established at first to provide competitive telephone service to residents and businesses in Wikwemikong, with a potential for expansion into the rest of Manitoulin Island, the company has now grown to serve both Native and non-Native populations across the province.

The FirstTel brand: Restructuring and growth
There are business perks to being situated within an Aboriginal reserve. “Because of the FirstTel brand, we have an appeal to First Nations across the country,” said Anne Marie Sandford, the company’s communications business manager. Having worked for various non-profit organizations, like the Wikwemikong Development Commission, and having sat on many boards of directors, such as the Ontario Native Women’s Association and the Barrie Area Native Advisory Circle, Sandford is equipped with the expertise needed for economic empowerment. She joined the company in 2014 at a critical point in FirstTel’s business development and restructuring. “We looked at bringing FirstTel in line with the image of the industry,” Sandford said.

The challenge of being located on Manitoulin Island is that FirstTel can currently serve only a fraction of Wikwemikong residents due to the monopoly on the telephone exchange. FirstTel is presently invested in changing this since a huge portion of potential business opportunities is lost due to monopolization. But the clientele presently served by the company remain continually loyal, Sandford said.

Because of the landline-based services provided by the company, Sandford has noticed demographic trends whereby FirstTel’s clients belong predominantly to the higher rungs of the age ladder. Diversification in services will allow for a diversification of clients and this is why FirstTel’s growth strategy has shifted to marketing and expansion of product line. “We amalgamated the broadcasting and telecommunications services together to brand FirstTeltv5 and FirstTel here in Wikwemikong so that we could offer a full suite of services,” Sandford said, adding that the company will be expanding its broadband services and the community channel to be more inclusive of the island.

Staying on top of other trends in the industry is allowing the company to stay competitive as well. “We’re looking at partnerships in the near future to be able to offer bundling packages because people are looking at bundling type, one-stop shopping services in a single bill. We’re hoping to explore those other options and remain competitive at the same time,” Sandford said.

The Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve is engaged in a number of activities centred on cultural revitalization and language preservation, and FirstTel, as an Aboriginal-owned enterprise, is doing its part by documenting everything that goes on in the community. The dedicated staff at FirstTel and FirstTeltv5 provide videography services, filming everything like the annual Pow Wow to sports events and healing and wellness activities.

The upcoming annual August long-weekend Pow Wow will celebrate First Nations culture with singing, dancing and food, and the event will be livestreamed by FirstTel so that people from all across the world can see it. A few weeks ago, when 150 Wikwemikong water walkers commenced their two-week long march in difficult terrain along the reserve’s shoreline, FirstTeltv5 was there to capture moments of a journey that was both physical and spiritual in nature.

With one foot in the community and the other engaged in business development and growth, Sandford projects both a grand vision and a bright future for the company. “FirstTel only focused on residents and businesses within Wikwemikong, but we have huge potential and we’d like to see FirstTel right across Canada,” Sandford said.