A year on the Net

by Jennifer Pritchett
Northern News Services

RANKIN INLET (Nov 03/97) - Bill Belsey hangs up the phone in Rankin Inlet after speaking with the Prime Minister's Office in Ottawa.

Belsey, an elementary school teacher who spearheaded the community access centre known as Igalaaq, says the call from the PMO is an indication of how the project has grown since last Nov. 2, when it opened as the first public Internet access centre in Canada's Arctic.

It's put the Keewatin community of 2,100 on the map as far as the Internet goes.

"They've really fallen in love with our community and our school," he says of the national attention the centre has attracted during the year it has been providing access to anyone who's interested.

Igalaaq and Leo Ussak elementary school is even set to appear this winter on CTV's 2000 Plus, a future-oriented current affairs program.

"I'm sitting back in my own seat and saying, 'Gee, they're asking us to be role models,'" says Belsey.

He says there was plenty of reason for the residents of Rankin Inlet to celebrate the centre's first anniversary Sunday.

While he tries to downplay his own role, saying he was simply in the right place at the right time, the fact is Belsey is an integral part of what the access centre has become in the relatively short time it has been open.

He says the community access idea was born shortly after he was approached two years ago to take over Leo Ussak's computer program.

Around that same time, Sakku Investments Corp. founded Sakku Arctic Technologies, an Internet service provider. In addition, Industry Canada announced the Community Access Program, which would provide funding to communities.

"These three things, magically, gratuitously, fatalistically came into play," says Belsey. "And I wanted to have the right tools so that our kids here wouldn't have to take a back seat to anyone."

Then he took the idea door-to-door and got local businesses to donate computer equipment. "I had to sell it a little bit in the beginning, but afterward, it sold itself," he says.

And few would say that he hasn't succeeded.

Belsey says the success came even though the project was started at a time when school boards everywhere, including Rankin Inlet's, were cutting costs.

"We started out with a handful of Macs and not much else," he says.

Today, children at Leo Ussak elementary school have access to more than $100,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment, and they're gaining valuable experience posting Web pages about the Arctic on the Net.

"They're elementary school children handling CD-ROMs like baby bottles or something," he says.

And according to Belsey, the enthusiasm of the students says it all.

For William Tiktak, 11, the centre provides him with valuable research tools. "It helps me with my projects -- I get on the Internet just about every day," he says.