Author: Shawn Cardinal
Connected North is a program with an ambition to provide quality video communications to remote communities in Northern Canada. This program will connect these communities with interactive education and healthcare services. For education in particular, students benefit from directly engaging with subject matter experts brought into the classroom through two-way video, for live interactive sessions. Students also connect with peers of the same age throughout Canada as part of the program’s ‘Classroom Connect’ component, to share rich educational and cultural experiences. Teachers are also able to make use of the technology for professional development workshops and mentoring opportunities.
My involvement with Connected North was quite simple; travel to Black Lake in northern Saskatchewan, install a Cisco MX300 in the Father Porte Memorial Dene School and train the principal on how to use the unit. I would soon find out there was much more to be discovered.
My journey to Black Lake started with an early morning flight out of Saskatoon on a small 14 seat plane. It was an easy three-hour journey thanks to the great team at West Wind Aviation – without their hospitality, it would have been over 15 hours of driving on some questionable roads. Going that far north I knew had to plan ahead and be prepared for any issues that may arise. Running back to the office or local store to pick up a required tool or part would not be an option.
In this northern community options are limited. There are only a couple of flights in and out each day so that meant I would have to stay overnight for what is normally a quick 30 minute MX300 installation. The choice of where to stay was also limited. As a sign in the dining room of the White Water Inn states: “There are two choices for dinner, Take it or Leave it”. That being said I had no problem with “taking it”. I found the staff welcoming, my room was cozy, and the home-style meals were an unexpected comfort.
As expected, the installation of the MX300 was simple; tighten a couple of bolts, connect power and network, done. I did hit one small issue where I needed to reach out to partners in Toronto and Saskatoon to verify port configuration. Normally communication is not a problem, but with no cell service and the school phones being restricted from dialing long distance, I really began to feel disconnected. As I searched for a way to associate with the seemingly distant world, I was again in reminded of the northern hospitality. One of the younger summer students helping out at the school pointed out the window to a nearby house and said “I am sure you can use Mark’s phone to call long distance”. It was a very casual and sincere offer. I decided to try my luck with the Wi-Fi internet access. Using Cisco Spark was a very handy way to connect with the project team in Toronto and Saskatoon. I was able to chat and quickly share detailed photos of the problem. Soon the dedicated circuit was properly configured and the service was up and running. The video quality over the 1.5Mb link was flawless – all provided generously by SaskTel. The school principal, Steve Thatcher, was impressed with how well the video worked and how easy the system was to use. He was expecting some intense user training but soon realized that the MX300 touch panel was very ‘non-tech’ friendly.
The Father Porte Memorial Dene School is a central focus for the community in more ways than one. The school is the largest and most modern structure around. The 450 students, from kindergarten through high school, are a good percentage of the community population. Their cultural pride is displayed through beautiful artwork displayed in cases and in the hallways. The addition of the high quality video conference will allow them to expand their reach and connect with the rest of the world like never before.
For me this was a genuine and unique experience that I will remember fondly. My involvement with this project made me realize this community has as much to gain as it has to offer. I am sure the giving culture and kindness of this northern community will be part of every video call.
Further details on Cisco’s Connected North Program can be found here.