In April 2022, local internet provider First Nations Fiber submitted a request to Bell Canada, asking the telecommunications conglomerate to replace a utility pole it owns that had fallen into disrepair. The request was not completed.
On Friday, February 3, the coldest day the region had seen in years, the pole snapped and brought several other high-voltage utility poles down with it, their live wires draping across Old Malone Highway. According to Hydro Quebec, 430 households were left without power, and a statement from Kahnawà:ke Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services (KSCS) estimates 1,500 people were affected by the outage.
For the safety of the community, the Kahnawake Peacekeepers shut down that section of the street, and KSCS opened up the White House to provide refuge from the -28 Celsius cold, which with windchill felt like -40 Celsius.
Homes south of Old Malone Highway and east of the Mercier Bridge were affected, according to Kahnawake Peacekeepers spokesperson Kyle Zachary.
Though Bell owns the snapped utility pole, Hydro Quebec was responsible for restoring power to the community, which for many households took five to six hours. Those closest to the downed power lines were left without power for almost 24 hours.
First Nations Fiber submitted the request for maintenance to Bell last spring as part of a routine process whereby local internet companies must put in applications to the corporations who own utility poles if they wish to attach fibre-optic cables to the pole. In Kahnawake, utility poles are owned by either Bell or Hydro Quebec.
Local fiber-optic companies are required to complete their own inspection of the pole, and often these inspections reveal that the utility poles are damaged and maintenance or replacement is required to bring the pole up to code.
“That preparatory work needed to bring the poll up to code is carried out by Bell or Hydro,” explained Kameron Lahache, chief operations officer at First Nations Fiber.
In the case of the pole that snapped, Lahache said, “We knew that the preparatory work that was required was a pole replacement.”
Wallace Stacey, president of K Fiber Optic, brought in a private contractor to inspect all 3,348 utility poles in Kahnawake, who identified that many of the poles in the community were in dire need of repair or replacement. “Why is equipment being neglected to this point? Couldn’t tell you,” said Stacey.
“Based on our experience of working on this for the past few years, no one has done this type of work on the poles and these surveys, or even just general maintenance hasn’t been done, I would say, for at least five to 10 years, maybe even more,” said Lahache.
However, both Lahache and Stacey described a hesitance from Hydro Quebec and Bell to conduct work here in Kahnawake. Both local fibre-optic companies have provided outside workers with escorts to prevent negative interactions with community members that stem from what Stacey calls mistrust.
Stacey believes it extends from a long-standing suspicion of outside utility workers, citing a perception from the community that utility vehicles have historically been used by outside police forces to surveil Kahnawa’kehró:non.
Lahache said there have been instances where utility workers have experienced hostility in the community, and that over time, because of these incidents, “(Bell and Hydro Quebec) became more and more cautious and then just started only coming to do what’s absolutely essential over time.
“That’s what we’re trying to change … because again, it’s infrastructure that the community absolutely needs.
“It’s how we communicate with our friends. It’s how we communicate with our families. It gives us the capabilities and the flexibility to work from home in the event that we need to,” said Lahache.
But it goes beyond crucial infrastructure. For Stacey, it’s also a matter of community safety; in March 2022, he said, an issue with a utility pole caused damage to one of K Fiber Optic’s lines. He said that particular pole was owned by Hydro Quebec.
“The line that did fall was a live electrical line. I couldn’t even tell you how many volts it was. It fell close to a child’s jungle gym,” said Stacey. Luckily, no one was electrocuted by the downed line, but given the state of Kahnawake’s utility poles and Bell and Hydro Quebec’s inaction, he’s concerned there could be future instances of harm or even death.
Francis Labbé, a spokesperson for Hydro Quebec, explained that part of the reason the repairs to Friday’s downed pole took almost 24 hours to complete is that the power provider had to wait for Bell to intervene because the pole belongs to the telecommunications company. Labbé said Hydro Quebec will only replace a utility pole without permission from the owner if the health and safety of the local population is at risk and “because the area was secured and traffic was stopped and everything was cleared,” the situation was not deemed an emergency.
Stacey expressed disappointment at the lack of urgency displayed by Hydro Quebec. “The emergency part is not the fact that the pole and the electricity is on the ground, but that it’s -40 outside and homes rely on electricity for heating,” he said.
Meg Bomberry, who lives nearby the downed pole, is one of 20 Hydro Quebec customers who was left without heat until the following Saturday afternoon.
“I had to stay (home). I was sick…. I didn’t wanna go to any of my family. I didn’t wanna go anywhere because I didn’t wanna get anybody sick,” Bomberry.
Thankfully Bomberry wasn’t completely alone during the outage; one of her sons brought propane heat to prevent the pipes in the house from freezing, while her other son offered a generator so they could keep the fridge and freezer plugged in.
When the pole snapped, Bomberry happened to be looking out her window.
“There was a guy here taking a picture of the pole and I didn’t know what he was doing cause he wasn’t from town, so my son had gone out there to see what he was doing,” she said.
Then a gust of wind blew up the snow, and snapped the pole “like a toothpick.”
“It was scary at first because all those lines were down,” said Bomberry, whose car was parked so close to the live wires that it had to be moved.
THE EASTERN DOOR asked Bell Canada about its failure to conduct maintenance on the pole before it resulted in an outage, as well as their hesitancy towards servicing Kahnawake more broadly.
“The power outage last Friday was due to strong winds, which unfortunately damaged a pole on Old Malone St.,” replied the company in an email statement.
“As with any power outage, Hydro Quebec needs to restore power before we can work on restoring telecommunication. In this instance there were no impacts to our network (cables remained intact) and Internet service was restored once power was restored.
“We have a good relationship with local Internet providers, KFibre (sic) and First Nation Wireless (sic) and we have regular meetings with both companies and Hydro Quebec to help them with their deployments and engineering and remain available to support them with their requests.”
Meanwhile, other poles are still standing that have been identified as being in need of replacement.
“Why in reserves are utility poles being neglected, where everywhere else … should you have this arise, it’d be an uproar?” said Stacey.