Community Update: Connecting isolated and underserved populations


The “digital divide” has disconnected isolated people from technology, programming, and essential information.

While COVID-19 has presented challenges for everyone across our region, it has exacerbated the inequities many populations were experiencing before the pandemic.

We learned early on in our COVID-19 response that that pandemic has not been a universal experience, and there are many still struggling in isolation and without adequate resources to thrive. 

People living in rural communities, newcomers and refugees, seniors, women and children living in violent or abusive homes and others, are struggling even more to stay connected in a virtual world that has left them behind. 

Since March 2020, United Way East Ontario has led a table of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others at the COVID-19 Community Response Table. These organizations are committed to supporting the most vulnerable people through the pandemic.

This week, our table met to hear from local partners about the digital divide and how we can work together to break down barriers.

Michael Allen

By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario

Connectivity is a basic human right

In our current climate, having internet access is no longer just a privilege – it must be a right.

Over the past year, nearly every sector has shifted to a virtual model of operation. From education to healthcare, entertainment to social services, industries shifted to virtual or hybrid models—sometimes within days of the pandemic shutting down in-person services. 

For many services, this means they can reach more people than ever before. But this quick shift also left some people cut off from the resources they rely on. 

For example, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) lists a minimum basic internet service level of at least 50mbps for downloads and 10mbps for uploads. 

But the infrastructure doesn’t always keep up with that requirement. In Renfrew County, average service levels range from 2 to 5mbps download speed, and 0.5 to 5mbps upload speed—and that’s when the service is actually working. 

United Way’s Renfrew County Regional Director, Jade Nauman, notes that dead zones and snails-pace internet speeds make it impossible for many individuals and families to access essential information, healthcare and mental health care, schooling, and more.

With crisis comes innovation

This week, we heard from our partners about the work they’re doing to break down technology inequities, fill information gaps, and ensure isolated and underserved communities have the tools they need to keep themselves safe and healthy. 

Many of the projects implemented during the pandemic are not short-term solutions: they are the keys to making social services more integrated, nimble and inclusive. If we sustain them, they can be part of the systems transformation the sector has needed for a long time.

United Way, the Ottawa Community Foundation and other partners, with support of generous donors, have seen the value of launching, sustaining, and empowering these innovations. 

But, the federal government’s emergency COVID-19 relief funding, that fuels many of these initiatives, expires on March 31, 2021. With this deadline looming and an uncertain financial future ahead, our table’s discussion was grounded in how we can make sure solutions and services continue.

Help is just a text away

Carina Maggiore, program coordinator at Interval House Ottawa, spoke to our table about the success of Unsafe at Home Ottawa

Unsafe at Home Ottawa is a secure and bilingual text and online chat platform for women and members of LGBTQ2S+ communities in Ottawa and Lanark County, who may be living with violence and abuse at home. This service has since been replicated in Prescott-Russell. 

Cut off from daily social interactions like school drop-offs and errands, many women don’t have anyone to alert about the danger they may be in. People who live in close quarters with their abuser may not have the privacy to call friends, family, or services that can help. Text and online chat is more discreet, and can save lives. 

Carina Maggiore
Project Coordinator for Unsafe at Home Ottawa at Interval House Ottawa

Since its launch in April 2020, the program has helped more than 1,200 chatters with emotional, legal and financial support; safety planning; system navigation; basic needs; and more. Unsafe at Home Ottawa has also referred at least 22 callers into safe and reliable housing.

Integrating communications best-practices from the beginning

Louisa Taylor
Director, Refugee613 

Refugee613 is an Ottawa-based communications, information, and mobilization hub. Its team informs, connects and inspires people to welcome refugees and build strong communities.

Newcomers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are over-represented in frontline jobs. Others are struggling with unemployment and financial insecurity due to business closures.

Before the pandemic, health-related communications did not recognize newcomers as a priority in outreach. As a result, newcomers were not receiving enough COVID-19 information at the beginning of the pandemic. 

These are some barriers that prevent newcomers from receiving essential information:

  • Language and literacy
    • Most COVID-19 resources are built in English and French, but many newcomers speak neither or have a limited understanding.
  • Immigration status
    • Refugee claimants have more legal needs and are not eligible for the same services as permanent residents. International students are also not eligible for most services.
  • Familiarity with technology
    • Some senior newcomers are not familiar with new technologies. While younger newcomers are comfortable using technology, they may use different platforms than what is mainstream among Canadians.
  • Discrimination
    • Newcomers face discrimination and the trauma of anti-Black racism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and other systemic biases in health care and information.

“Lack of access to pandemic information is a failure to practice equity in communications.”

— Louisa Taylor, Refugee613

To combat these issues, Refugee613 applies an equity lens to communications strategies. During COVID-19, this has meant: 

  • translating public health messaging into a variety of languages;
  • distributing messages through newcomer-serving organizations;
  • creating WhatsApp groups to share information where newcomers would look for it; and,
  • hosting a Digital Messaging Summit to share best practices with other agencies.

By planning for cultural competency from the beginning, services can ensure they reach the communities that need them the most. 

Using data to inform public health messaging

Erinn Salewski is the Manager of Community Operations at Ottawa Public Health (OPH)—a role that was created to keep underserved populations safe and healthy during COVID-19.

We know racialized people are more likely to contract COVID-19 and experience poor health outcomes. Experiences of racism in healthcare means people of colour and Indigenous peoples often have a hard time trusting health institutions.

Working with Ottawa Community Housing, Integrated Neighbourhood Service teams, schools and other partners, OPH launched a pilot project to better communicate with the groups most affected by COVID-19. 

Starting with Somali, Arabic, and African, Carribean, and Black (ACB) Francophone populations, the outreach team’s purpose is to build trust and awareness, and share information about testing and other supports.

Some of the tools OPH uses include multilingual videos, audio, and text messages for WhatsApp. By also hiring communications professionals from within these cultural groups, OPH is able to strengthen trust from within these communities.

Erinn Salewski
Manager of Community Operations at Ottawa Public Health

“Only half of all people diagnosed with COVID-19 identified English or French as their first language.”

— Erinn Salewski, Ottawa Public Health

Bridging the digital divide in rural communities

Andrew Martey Asare
Community Mesh Feasibility Study Coordinator, National Capital FreeNet

Andrew Martey Asare of National Capital FreeNet—a local internet service provider committed to digital access—spoke about the differences in connectivity between urban and rural communities.

According to the Communication Monitoring Report of 2020, 87.7% of all Ontario households have an internet connection. But only 30.5% of households in rural areas, and 16.1% of homes on First Nations reserves have internet access.

Local social enterprises like National Capital FreeNet are interested in digital equity, technology solutions, and the business case for better service. However, many of the bigger telecommunications companies with the power to make change, don’t focus on these issues.

“In Canada, the under-connected (those whose internet service is below CRTC recommendations) and unconnected make up 50% of all households.”

— Andrew Martey Asare, National Capital FreeNet

Andrew and Dianne Urquhart of the Social Planning Council of Ottawa spoke about the Digital Equity Initiative. Here are four key ways to strengthen digital equity in our region: 

  • Hardware: Access to devices and technology
    • Give residents in need access to appropriate hardware and technical support.

  • Connectivity: Access to affordable, reliable and fast internet for all
    • Expand internet service and broadband infrastructure to low income and rural residents.

  • Digital Literacy: Ability to participate in digital communities
    • Train residents in digital skills so they can take part in education, employment and more. 

  • Capacity: Strengthen the non-profit sector
    • Increase the capacity of the non-profit sector to provide digital services for residents who face barriers.

“COVID-19 has shown just how urgent it is to close Canada’s digital divide.”

— Carole Saab, Federation of Canadian Municipalities

For Carole Saab, CEO of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), connectivity for everyone is a top priority. She sees municipalities, and FCM, as playing a leading role in implementing programs that can break down the digital divide. Municipalities are in a unique position to consolidate infrastructure, digital access, and frontline resources for the people that need them. 

Toronto’s ConnectTO program is a promising example of how municipalities, with private and non-profit partners, can break down the digital divide for underserved communities. ConnectTO recognizes that access to affordable, high-speed internet is a social justice issue—even more so during the pandemic. 

While many partners stressed the importance of connectivity to prevent and manage crises, Carole spoke about how critical connectivity is for basic social interaction in many remote communities. In Nunavut, for example, many kids use online gaming as their only method of connecting socially, due to COVID-19 and because of geographic isolation. Proper infrastructure is vital so even more people can participate in this kind of engagement.  

In 2019, the federal government responded to FCM’s advocacy by investing in broadband and wireless connectivity across the country. This will prove to be a major boost to economies and quality of life in rural, northern and remote communities.

Carole Saab
Chief Executive Officer, Federation of Canadian Municipalities 

The path forward

Almost one year into the pandemic, thousands of people across Canada are still cut off from life-saving services and basic information because technology and connectivity doesn’t reach them. 

We know our region’s needs, which puts us in a position to effectively evolve and strengthen the initiatives that are successful for our local communities. As we continue to support the integral work of our partners to bridge these gaps, here are key recommendations to strengthen this work:

  • Communications: Bolster successful methods of building trust and delivering key information to specific communities.  
  • Critical engagement: Sustain funding and resources that empower critical engagement tools.
  • Capacity building: Strengthen coordination between services. Increase data collection.
  • Collaboration/partnerships: Enhance partnerships between cities and municipalities and their highly impacted communities.
  • Connectivity: Continue to advocate for and collaborate around improved connectivity infrastructure.

The work continues

With so many engaged partners who are laser-focused on a common goal, we are able to respond quickly to the needs as we identify them. Right now, in the thick of this crisis, we must ensure everyone can receive the information they need to keep themselves safe and healthy. 

This is a priority not just during COVID-19, but for the health and wellbeing of our collective future.

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit



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