OTTAWA - The Conservative government is quietly cutting funding to hundreds of community groups and even hospitals that provide free Internet access to Canadians who might not otherwise have a chance to get online.
Organizations that benefit from Industry Canada's 16-year-old Community Access Program began receiving letters last week informing them that sites located within 25 kilometres of a public library would no longer be eligible for cash.
Groups had been receiving between $4,000 and $5,000 a year to buy computers and other hardware, such as printers and wireless routers; to pay for technical support and skills training; and sometimes to pay for the connection bills.
Organizations that have used the program include employment and youth drop-in centres, English-as-a-second-language programs, libraries, and seniors groups.
In rural areas, such organizations are often clustered in the middle of town and near the local library, meaning they are the most likely to be hit by the change in funding criteria.
In Industry Minister Tony Clement's riding, the West Parry Sound Health Centre administers the funds for 46 different community sites that will likely see their funding disappear because they don't fit the new narrow criteria.
Co-ordinator John Lee got involved with the program from its inception in 1994, when it was called SchoolNet.
He says it's a vital resource for organizations in rural communities where people don't always have access to high-speed Internet or sometimes even a computer.
At the health centre where Lee works, the public computer is used by long-term and emergency care patients and their families. The facility went from one computer to 10 over the last decade, and doesn't know if can keep its program alive.
"This is one of the most successful programs and services that Industry Canada has had," said Lee, who has personally appealed to Clement.
"It's really unfortunate, with the small amount of money, when you consider the larger part of the budget."
Karen Deluca of the Arnprior Public Library in eastern Ontario, said $3,000 is a lot for a small library.
"It's a vital link for everyone. It puts everyone on the same footing across Canada," said Deluca, who sees people come in to draft resumes, download programs, or do homework.
"There are still many rural communities who still do not have high speed access at home."
Industry Canada did not immediately respond to questions about changes to the program, including the size of the cut.
Details did not appear on Industry Canada's website or in the recent federal budget documents, which had been touting the government's new work on a "digital economy strategy."
The Conservatives are spending $200 million on expanding broadband coverage to underserved households in Canada.
Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, told the House of Commons on Monday that public libraries and 80 per cent of Canadians now have Internet access.
Liberal MP Anthony Rota, vice-chair of the Commons committee on industry, science and technology, wants to know where that leaves the other 20 per cent of the population.
"What this Conservative party is saying basically is that if you live in a large urban centre, then you're important, but the other 20 per cent of Canada, that's not important to this government," said Rota.
"When you start dismissing people, you create a divide in Canada between the haves and the have nots."