Police continue investigation into fibre line cut in Canada’s Northwest Territories

This photo, taken from Highway 3 near Yellowknife, shows a sign warning of the fibre optic line overhead. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)
RCMP, Canada’s federal police, are asking for the public’s help as they investigate two incidents of suspected vandalism that disrupted communications in Yellowknife and the surrounding territory this summer.

Police are seeking information from anyone who travelled on Highway 3 between Behchoko and Yellowknife, either around 9 a.m. this past Monday, Aug. 12, or between 7 and 7:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 13.

Police are specifically interested in any dashcam footage gathered during or around those times.

Monday’s major telecommunications disruption — that stifled local businesses, wreaked havoc on emergency phone lines, delayed flights and caused intermittent phone outages — is believed to have been caused by a “deliberate act of vandalism” to the Northwestel fibre optic line running between Behchoko and Yellowknife, according to an RCMP news release.

“I think the public has a vested interest in solving this,” said Staff Sgt. Dean Riou, with the Federal Investigations Unit in charge of the case.

“Anybody traveling on the highway even if they didn’t notice anything suspicious, if they have any dashcam footage that maybe would capture a vehicle traveling on the highway that could be of interest to us, we would certainly be interested in talking to those people.”

CBC News reached out to Weatherby Trucking Ltd. and Manitoulin Transport about use of dashcams in transport trucks travelling the highway. Neither company require that their drivers use the technology.

“I think they’re starting to become a growing trend in the territory and elsewhere, so we’re hoping that somebody can come through for us,” said Riou.

Major impact

Police declined to comment on the specifics of the case because it is an open investigation, but did confirm they are looking into the possibility that the two instances of vandalism are linked.

Riou emphasized the seriousness of the offences.

“I think it has a very significant impact on the entire territory, and not just the comforts of having internet but the necessity, the ability to contact emergency services if you need,” he said.

“I know that there were flights that were delayed, for example some of a court party couldn’t travel to one of their sittings in one of the communities. Small businesses are losing money because they have an inability to conduct transactions. So, it’s a very serious incident and we’re certainly treating it as such.”

Potential charges under the Criminal Code that the perpetrator or perpetrators could face include common nuisance, mischief exceeding $5,000, and mischief endangering life, which have maximum sentences of two years, 10 years and life imprisonment, respectively, according to RCMP G-Division spokesperson Marie York-Condon.

She added RCMP would gather all evidence available before deciding on the applicable charges.

Northwestel beefing up security

Meanwhile, Northwestel is beefing up security in an attempt to prevent future vandalism.

“After this summer, we’re implementing additional security measures,” said Northwestel spokesperson Andrew Anderson.

“I’m not going to speak about specifically what they are, but we’re going to do more to ensure that we have the measures in place to reasonably protect, where we can, the infrastructure that people rely on.”

The recent outages have also highlighted a need for redundancy for the fibre line that provides the N.W.T. capital with internet connectivity. There is a single cable running between Fort Providence and Yellowknife.

Earlier this month, Anderson told CBC there was no business case to support spending the millions of dollars it would take to add another line to Yellowknife. However, given recent events, both Northwestel and the territorial government are taking another look.

Earlier this week, territorial Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod promised to sit down with Northwestel before the forthcoming election season to talk options.

Northwestel is committed to bringing options forward to the territorial and federal governments on how to add redundancy and further protect infrastructure in the Yellowknife area, Anderson said Wednesday.

With files from Randi Beers and Sidney Cohen

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: From wolves to ‘idiots’ with backhoes, threats to fibre lines in Northern Canada are many, CBC News

Finland: Major step towards a Europe-Asia Arctic cable link, Yle News

Norway: New satellites to boost communications in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian military to get fast, secure internet through trans-Arctic cable, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Northern Sweden to host more Facebook servers, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska’s first wireless 5G network to be built in Anchorage, Alaska Public Media

Laura Busch, CBC News

Laura Busch, CBC News

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