Feds slash public access funding

Federal budget cuts aimed at public access computers could mean locals will no longer have access to free internet time.

Computers with internet access at the Burns Lake Public Library are in high demand by local residents and tourists.

Computers with internet access at the Burns Lake Public Library are in high demand by local residents and tourists.

Federal budget cuts aimed at the Burns Lake Public Library‘s public access computers could mean locals will no longer have access to free internet time at the library.

Head librarian Elaine Wiebe said the eight public access computer stations are well used by the public and losing the $3,400 in annual funding will be a big financial blow to the library’s budget.

Industry Canada cancelled its public computer funding on March 31, 2012, and termination of the program will result in a $515,000 cut in funding to 135 Community Access Program sites in public libraries across the province, including Burns Lake.

Starting in 1995, Industry Canada funded public computers at libraries and community centres across Canada as a way to bring high speed internet access to people living in rural areas or on low incomes.

On April 5, the federal agency said it was pulling the plug on its public computer program because of a tight budget year and because the program had successfully achieved its objectives.

However Wiebe said the computers are still very much in demand in Burns Lake, not only by locals but also by tourists during the summer.

Public libraries use the funding to bridge the digital divide between  Canadians who cannot get or afford access to electronic information.

“Libraries support free access to information like no other organization,” said Christopher Kevlahan, president of the British Columbia Library Association. “The fact that the federal government doesn’t value this service should be cause for concern for all Canadians,” he said.

Wiebe said she hopes locals will put pen to paper and write to MP Nathan Cullen to express the need for the service in the local area.

“We hope that this funding is reinstated,” she said.

If not, Wiebe said the library, if it is going to keep offering free internet access, will be forced to turn to the Village of Burns Lake or the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako for help with the funding.

“Or it may be that we have to start charging for the service,” she said.

According to the latest Statistics Canada survey on internet use, 84 per cent of B.C. households had home internet access in 2010, a rate that is higher in major cities.

Among the roughly 20 per cent of Canadian households who do not have internet access at home, more than half said they had no need or interest in it.

The same survey showed that households with a combined income of $30,000 or less, just 54 per cent of people had home internet access.

With files from Andrew Hudson.