It’s a crisp late fall morning when we land in Williams Lake following a short flight from Vancouver. A thick fog is burning off and the landscape reveals itself on our taxi ride into town, rolling hills giving way to treed mountains in the near distance. I’m traveling with Marissa Nobauer of TELUS’ Strategic Initiatives team, and we’re meeting Ruth Williams, Pathways to Technology Project Manager, and Melissa Fournier, Thompson Rivers University Continuing Studies Department Lead at the local Starbucks so as to drive out to the ?Esdilagh Health Centre together, Melissa boldly taking the wheel.
Piled into Melissa’s car, we climb up and out of Williams Lake, leave the main highway and first head slightly west, dropping down via a series of switchbacks on a road that is sometimes paved and sometimes not. Our descent leads us into a canyon and across the Fraser river. Looking north up the canyon, the river is bordered on either side by steep, high, sandy banks. The morning’s fog is gone now, and the colour palette is sandy browns, soft greens, the teal grey of the river and the piercing blue of the sky.
We cross the river and then wind our way back up switchbacks on the other side and head north. Eventually, we part ways with the river and travel alongside fields dotted with grazing cattle. After just over an hour in the car, we pull into the parking lot of Esdilagh’s Chief Frank Joe Health Building and temporary band office. The Health Centre and temporary band office is a handsome building with a wood and red metal exterior. Carved pumpkins adorn a ledge outside the door and the atmosphere is festive and welcoming. We enter and make our way down a clean, bright hallway to the large dining and community room at its end. We are greeted warmly and enthusiastically.
?Esdilagh has invited TELUS and Pathways to Technology to their weekly community luncheon so as to give community members the opportunity to learn about the fibre build project and the arrival of high-speed internet. TELUS team members are there with laptops, able to sign people up for high speed internet on the spot. Rod Peck, TELUS Field Service Manager, explains that the project has brought fibre optic cable to 21 homes on the reserve, enabling internet with speeds of up to 1 gigabit and giving access to Optik TV (access to both dependent on service package subscribed for). In addition, Pathways has negotiated with TELUS for a special $15 monthly discount on internet services for ?Esdilagh residents so that the service package options are more affordable and accessible.
We do a roundtable of introductions and Ruth Williams, Pathways to Technology Project Manager, provides background and context with respect to Pathway’s role as the primary funding contributor for the project. In having heard community members’ introductions, she notes shared roots, her own family heritage interwoven with that of certain members of ?Esdilagh. She also announces that Pathways has brought an iPad for raffle, and community members and staff enthusiastically write their names on tickets to be drawn after lunch.
After a prayer we are invited to help ourselves to the bountiful lunch that’s appeared on a buffet table. The lunch has been sponsored by TELUS and prepared by ?Esdilagh’s many hat-wearing Finance Officer and sometimes cook, Sherry Webster. We sit with community members and chat about the arrival of high-speed internet and what people are most excited about.
I have a chance to connect with Norman Joanie. Joanie is early middle-aged with a quick, warm smile. He runs the water treatment plant and is hoping to soon put in place a “SCADA” or “Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition” system that will enable remote monitoring and control of the treatment plant. Using a SCADA system, operators can identify issues, determine their causes and often resolve them, all from a remote computer that is connected to network data about system components.
SCADA systems are available through a variety of different software platforms, but they generally all require reliable high-speed internet to function. Until now, SCADA has not been an option at ?Esdilagh and Joanie has had to be physically present at the treatment plant to troubleshoot and resolve any and all issues. When he is away traveling or even just in Williams Lake, this has meant that, if problems arise, the treatment centre can’t properly function until his return. Joanie anticipates that the installation of a SCADA system will have a major and very positive impact on his work and management of the plant.
Finance Officer Sherry Webster is equally excited about the impacts high-speed internet will have on her role. Much of ?Esdilagh’s administration is run from an office in Williams Lake and she commutes to that office five days a week. The drive can be treacherous and harrowing, particularly in winter. Without local high-speed internet, the daily commute has been unavoidable because virtually all banking transactions have to be done in-person at the bank in Williams Lake. With the arrival of local high-speed internet though, Webster will be able to work locally at least 2 or 3 days a week. Payroll can now be done at ?Esdilagh using online banking tools, and payments can be remitted via direct deposit rather than by obtaining and issuing individual cheques.
Conversations with local health practitioners revealed that, perhaps the biggest and most eagerly anticipated changes at ?Esdilagh are those relating to health services. Up until now, a visit to the doctor meant at least a trip to Williams Lake, and appointments with specialists often required travel even further afield. Exciting new online technologies are about to change all of this. The most significant of these is Telehealth, which uses live videoconferencing to deliver health services from practitioners in one location to patients in another. Telehealth appointments will be delivered and facilitated at the ?Esdilagh Health Centre and appointments will be available with doctors and specialists from all over BC.
Community Health Nurse, Sam, (pictured here and also the winner of the iPad provided by Pathways toTechnology!), explained that Telehealth is a critical service for elders living at ?Esdilagh. As independent travel to Williams Lake becomes less feasible for aging people, remote doctor and specialist appointments can literally save lives. ?Esdilagh is working with the First Nations Health Authority to bring Telehealth to the community and expects that it will be in place in the very near future.
Health Director Thelma Stump is also very enthusiastic about the fact that the Health Centre will soon be migrating to electronic medical records or “EMRs”. EMRs will replace paper records so that patient information can be accessed and updated by doctors in real time and from anywhere. When clinics or doctors see patients, they will have access to each patient’s medical history via the patient’s EMR. Ms. Stump noted that this would also enable better follow up care for community members at-risk, in that it will now be possible to narrow down where people might be living or traveling based on their medical records.
Lastly, high-speed internet service will open the door for Health Centre staff to take webinars and other online training offered by the FNHA or other curriculum providers. Until now, continuing education has required travel to larger centres like Vancouver to attend courses and seminars. High-speed internet access means that courses can now be accessed online, travel costs eliminated, and the saved money directed to other priorities.
On the drive back from ?Esdilagh, our spirits are high as we reflect on the afternoon. The community is genuinely excited about the arrival of high-speed internet and ready to embrace its transformative potential. The energy is infectious and Melissa Fournier looks forward to the time she will soon spend with the community when she returns to deliver a capacity building workshop. Doors are being opened and lives are changing as Pathways delivers on its promise to bring high-speed internet and help close the digital divide.