Bell Canada — The collapse of Sympatico email and how corporate irresponsibility left Canadians in the lurch

Thousands of Canadians have found themselves suddenly without email access, isolated from family and friends, and their small businesses or freelance careers in peril–thanks to an astounding level of irresponsibility by Bell Canada. I am one of many Canadians impacted by the apparent collapse of Bell Canada’s webmail program, the dearth of candid updates from the Canadian telecommunications giant and the absence of any resolution to a problem that has lit up social media with complaints, but has seemingly failed to move Bell Canada to action. Since the Hungarian Free Press is directly impacted by this situation (I rely on Sympatico email to communicate and share files with my colleagues and contributors: András Göllner in Montreal, György Lázár in California and Eszter Garai-Édler in Budapest), and since this site’s purpose is to serve as a platform of activist journalism, I think it appropriate to share with our readers how a company that has become far too comfortable in the Canadian telecommunications duopoly has stranded thousands. It seems either uninterested or unable to help seniors, students, small business owners and many others who now find themselves in a particularly precarious position.

The beginning of the end

Earlier this summer, I was sitting on the bed in a hotel room in Kyiv (Ukraine), huddled over my laptop, trying to decipher an email from Bell Canada instructing me to migrate my Sympatico account, long accessed through Outlook’s web interface, to one hosted in-house, directly at The Canadian corporate giant apparently wanted to offer its clients an “upgraded” experience and higher security, so it was gradually moving us all away from Outlook and over to their own webmail platform. They made the transition seem like a cakewalk. That’s why I was horrified at my ineptitude when I was not able to make the transition. Can clicking on a link and typing in your username and password be that difficult? I’m a 35 year old Millennial, I grew up with computers, spent years working as an online freelance writer and have established and run two blogs, one of which won a national award in Hungary. Yet I could not, for the life of me, log into my account on the new interface. Maybe I was still reeling from my visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone earlier in the day? Perhaps the wifi at Hotel Ukrayina, a towering Soviet structure overlooking the famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti central square, was to blame?

Whatever the reason, I could not spend countless hours with Bell telephone support while overseas. I also had to catch my flight back to Budapest at an ungodly hour the next morning. So I packed away my laptop and realized that Bell will certainly send me another email, before they shut me out of the Sympatico account that I have used for the past 12 years.

And then they pulled the plug…

In early August, I was at the World Social Forum in Montreal. I had a panel to chair and a discussion to moderate, and was surprised by how uncharacteristically empty my email inbox was, as I waited for the metro. That’s when I saw an email from Bell, which I almost missed, indicating that my account had been migrated. As the train rolled into the authentically seventies retro Villa Maria metro station, I realized that I was not able to log into the account on, to where my email had been migrated. Surely, Bell Canada would not pull the plug on my Sympatico email, which had files that I needed for the upcoming symposium that day, and leave me stranded with no email access?

When I returned home, after being cut off from email on a busy and important day, I phoned Bell Canada, explained the problem and after some tinkering on their end, I was able to finally access the new interface and read a flurry of emails. I was so desperate for a quick resolution, that I barely raised an eyebrow when the overseas Bell Canada call centre agent asked me to divulge my password, as this was the only way to resolve this issue.

Káosz / Chaos. Source: -- Hungarian Interactive Portal of Contemporary Art / Artist: "sin of god"

Káosz / Chaos. Source: — Hungarian Interactive Portal of Contemporary Art / Artist: “sin of god”

Welcome to 1995

The horror began to set in when I started using the new and improved webmail system. None of my contacts and addresses had been migrated and the search function was completely dysfunctional. I had to continually sign into my old Outlook account–which no longer received new emails, but stored my old ones–to find the email addresses of contacts, each time I sent anyone a message.

Even more problematic was the fact that it took a minimum of forty-five seconds to a minute each time I wanted to load my inbox. Loading a single email, containing only text, took at least half a minute to appear on my screen. The circular animated icon began making me dizzy, as I stared at it for extended periods of time, enduring the painful wait for each email to load and for my inbox to refresh. I am a fan of almost everything retro, except for clunky web applications that remind me of the heady days of the birth of the Internet. But being a Canadian, I sucked it in, pledged to somehow make do and get accustomed to painful mediocrity. I’ll just adapt to the new reality–that’s what life is all about.

Until it all came crashing down…

My new, upgraded and secure webmail came to an unceremonious halt this Monday evening. I suddenly found that an inbox which took over a minute to load and my vanished address book were no longer my most pressing problems. My inbox no longer loaded at all, but like a form of traditional torture, Bell Canada continued to cheerily divulged the number of new and unread messages–a number that kept rising–which I could not access, read or answer.  I felt increasingly helpless.

Since Bell Canada did not issue any statement on the state of its email or whether there were any service interruptions, I did not know if the problem resided only with my account or if there was a systemic problem. I phoned Bell customer service and was pleased to only wait on hold for around twenty minutes. The kind lady in the overseas call centre assured me that the problem would be solved in four to eight hours and my email would be restored to full functionality. She asked me to divulge my password–someone else already knew it from my previous experience with Bell Canada customer support, so what’s the difference if one more person now had it as well?

Eight hours passed and my email had not been restored. I started visiting Bell Canada’s Facebook page, where the telecommunications giant posted happily about Canada’s Olympic athletes, but not a peep about any possible technical problems. Yet when I began reading the frantic, despondent and irate posts from scores of other Bell Sympatico clients, I had my “Houston, we have a problem” moment.

“What the hell’s going on at Bell”–yelled Steve in all caps. “No more email on two iPads, no more email on my phone and email on my computer which sometimes works, sometimes will not let me log in and sometimes kicks me out. Even Canada Post could do a better job!”--he added.

“‘Upgrade’ must be one of the most deceptive words in our time,” remarked Rick, and added the following about his attempt to have the email fiasco solved: “After half an hour with one of their representatives, he blamed my phone.”

The introduction of the ‘new Bell email’ is becoming a disaster. Loss of emails, rejection at log in, freezing on strange pages and inability to set up changes on my iPhone email settings,” observed Douglas. “All of my worldly contacts are through my Sympatico account, so this problem has effectively cut me off from everyone! Another wonderful Bell fiasco,” he exclaimed.

“I called today and asked the Bell technician why I still don’t have spell check. He asked me: ‘what is spell check?'”--recounted Ken.

I should not have to wait for over 20 minutes for my inbox to fill, or to compose a message. Perhaps, switching back to Outlook is a good idea until you get all the kinks worked out? You have e-mails and private messages from me,” added Janice. 

In most cases, pleasant, but helpless Bell agents assigned to Facebook–known as Kelsey, Crystal and Chris–tried to calm the growing storm. They were undoubtedly in an awkward position, promising to connect us with tech support agents who would resolve all of our problems. But no help came. Not 24 hours later. Not 36 hours later. Not 48 hours later.

Waiting for Godot

I became increasingly humourless, especially as my unanswered emails piled up in my dysfunctional, inaccessible inbox. I also know how damaging this is for thousands of small business owners who work from home and rely on their email to make an income, pay their bills and keep a roof over their head. When I supported myself as a graduate student through online freelance writing work–producing large amounts of online content, with quick turn-around and for modest remuneration–not having access to my email for over three days would have eliminated the income I needed to survive and would have burnt my bridges with the British and American companies that bought my articles. I also think of the elderly Canadians who are isolated at home, but keep in touch with the outside world first and foremost through email–children and grandchildren who live on the other end of this vast country or across the globe.

On Wednesday night my blood pressure climbed as I seethed quietly, waiting for forty minutes on hold, as a soft voice recording thanked me for my patience, repeatedly, every two minutes. I finally got through and the young man explained that there was a problem with the Bell mail migration and with the server. I should not expect any resolution tonight, so I might as well go to bed and try again tomorrow.

This is a good time to catch up on my reading, I thought. Although rather than reaching for a book, I became strangely addicted to the growing chorus of furious Bell Sympatico customers expressing their understandable frustration online. When I tried to log-in next morning, I was pleased to finally access my painfully slow, but partially functioning Bell mail. Was the agony over?

No such luck. I was once again locked out of my account twenty minutes later and have not had access ever since.

So what can Bell Canada customers do?

Clearly, Bell Canada is unable to resolve this mess. And even if it does at some point, many Canadians will have gone for a full work week cut off from their email. Filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau is a good way to get a corporation that has acted so irresponsibly and with seeming disinterest when faced with the plight of thousands of consumers to take notice. It is a surprisingly effective strategy. (Here is the form to complete online when filing a complaint against Bell Canada.) The BBB allows you to explain your complaint and also propose a solution that is acceptable to you. The BBB then contacts Bell Canada on your behalf with your complaint and desired resolution. The telecommunications giant has up to thirty days to propose an acceptable solution. 

You can also report your Bell outages and email problems to sites like Canadian Outages. At the time of publication, 33% of all people who reported problems with Bell services indicated that their outages related to Bell email.

In the twenty-first century, social media offers consumers leverage that we never had before. Share your experiences with Bell Canada on Facebook, post public complaints on Bell Canada’s Facebook page, turn to Twitter and write a blog post on how corporate irresponsibility impacts you.

Equally important: let policymakers and your local representatives know how the duopoly in Canada’s telecommunications industry is to the detriment of Canadian citizens and how Bell Canada’s dominance–including in the world of mass media–poses a problem on so many levels.

At some point, Bell Canada might finally resolve its shambolic webmail service. Although the fact that many Canadians are reporting that Bell Canada customer service representatives are encouraging clients to just switch to Gmail is hardly reassuring. Bell Canada dismantled a functioning email service, cut the cord without having any contingency plan and is now essentially treating Canadians as guinea pigs in their weird, frustrating and experimental in-house system.


I contacted BCE and Bell Canada’s Media Relations department. One of their media officers, Caroline Audet, has committed to responding to my questions and my media query. If or when she does, I will publish those on this site as well.



  1. Avatar Sandor Kerekes says:

    The Better Business Bureau is fine, but the real forum you should turn to is the federal communication authority.

  2. “Thousands of Canadians have found themselves suddenly without email access, isolated … essentially treating Canadians as guinea pigs….”

    Does it mean rehearsal? Something big is going to happen when disrupting civilian communication is a must for keeping the populace under control?

    Trust in the mechanism, things don’t happen by chance.

    • Avatar Christopher Adam says:


      I am starting to think that this is perhaps more of a nasty, back-handed business decision, rather than a larger conspiracy. The reality is that it costs money for Bell Canada to purchase a license for its email clients to use Outlook. So they decided to move their email in-house, to their own platform, which I presume is a cheaper option. Yet that platform is proving to be completely dysfunctional and far inferior to Outlook, even with it is working (which is almost never). So why not use this as an opportunity to push Bell Canada clients to just dump Bell email, which costs the firm money to maintain, and sign up for a free webmail service like Gmail or Yahoo. That way Bell can have the best of both worlds: clients still pay for their internet/phone/television bundle, but there is no need for the company to offer much in terms of a webmail platform.

      Anyhow, if we had more competition in this country, Bell clients could vote with their feet and their wallets and bid Bell farewell. I hope some do.

      • Chris,

        yes, fair enough. It was just your closing words “treating Canadians as guinea pigs” that made me think about things beyond what is so obvious. Internet is a mighty weapon. Business, civil life, everything depends on the internet. Now even religion goes on the net. It’s business of course but/and national security. E.g. the NSA ordered all IS companies to give them a backdoor. Only Kaspersky and Fsecure failed to comply.

        Business, money, politics and control is one. Those who have the communication, the email in their hands have their control. They control. Does Bell want to abandon a business the way you said or is it taken away from them? Remember the recent fighter business Lockheed Martin and Boeing? Threats, open threats of disrupting social security if you buy from someone else. Competition between Outlook and Gmail, Microsoft and Google.

        I certainly might be paranoid, but just because being paranoid doesn’t mean that a suspicion cannot be true.

        But it’s O.K. I was just thinking about some other explanations beyond the obvious. Nothing serious.

  3. Have had no issues with the migration. All devices and work station work well. The migration brought my contacts across with no action on my part. Access is as a favourite not directly on

  4. I can’t believe a friend just posted this, today, I had to drag both my iPhone and iPad down to BELL store at Eaton Centre to get THOSE guys to fix my damn email. I was without email on both devices for two weeks, maybe longer…I’m not an idiot, I followed those precise instructions from BELL to the letter yet had no luck, I checked, and double checked I had the correct info where it was supposed to be…and it was, yet STILL no email. Today, my new best friend Milton (Eaton Centre store) got everything working for me. It even took him awhile but he did it so I suggest EVERYONE bring their devices to ANY BELL store and get THEM to fix your email! Grrrr. About to leave BELL hell anyway.

  5. Avatar Bryon Harvey says:

    Mayby Bell should contract the Gov of Canada CS Group to fix their issues.

  6. Avatar Kent Hunter-Duvar says:

    Who told you Bell (or any ISP) needed to purchase a license to allow Outlook to be a mail client? I’m a long time internet user and I’ve a strong dislike of Outlook. I’m forced to use it at work and it does work decently with our company’s Active Directory network. But it, or almost any mail client, works with Linux servers (which is what most ISP’s use), no licenses required.
    I’ve been with several ISPs during my internet use over the last 20+ years and have long ago migrated away from any ISP associated email accounts. I never used my @Sympatico account, I never used my Rogers account during my very short and unhappy use, and I don’t use the account my current ISP provides. I use a webmail account from gmail as well as accounts at my own domain. Either would be accessible via Outlook (BTW, it can be configured to download and store your mail, so that you then have copies available offline). I prefer to use Eudora on my PCs, due to it’s much more versatile handling of mail.
    I also seems to me, that had you taken action, when you were first given notice, much of the pain of the migration, might have been avoided. That said, Bell could certainly have done a much better job of it all. I reached a point several years ago, when I severed my connection to Bell, that I’d rather have no internet, than ever pay them, or Rogers another dime.

  7. I don’t know if my paranoid and conspiracy theory comment has any basis or connection with reality and of course I cannot see what Bell does but I just found it, thought might be interesting for people who are knowledgeable about the internet.

    Other sources BBC and almost all online publications.

  8. Avatar Daniel Amsler says:

    Okay so it wasn’t just me when my Outlook account email account suddenly went nuts and dumped over 3,000 messages in my inbox. That was the most annoying and tiring thing that I’ve had to deal with in my over 18 years as a Bell internet client (Grey Nortel modem anyone?)

    If it wasn’t for the fact that my email address is 18 years old, I would have dumped Bell after this disaster.

  9. I really wanted to give them a chance to get their ‘new improved’ email service stabilized, but finally decided to cut my losses, as this train wreck has not been cleaned up. Both my wife and I have now taken the significant step to migrate from our and email addresses to gmail accounts. This makes it real easy for me to take the next logical step…..cancellation of our Bell Internet, the LAST Bell service in my household.

  10. Kent Hunter-Duvar: When Chistopher said “license for its email clients to use Outlook” he meant clients as in customers, not the actual outlook mail client application.
    The history here is that many years ago when Bell created their Sympatico email service, they farmed the whole thing out to Microsoft under their existing Outlook email infrastructure and servers and systems. To access their email people used Microsoft accounts that happened to have domains or, but under the covers the email accounts were no different than a or email address, accessed on the web using an Outlook email client customized for Bell. It was a little weird, but IT WORKED.
    So what must have happened in the last few years is some genius exec at Bell said “why don’t we bring the email infrastructure into our own house and save a load of money”.
    Anyway, the rest is history. The Bell migration was a train wreck from the word Go. I got tired of waiting for things to settle down, and since I kind of depend my email to be accessible and functional, I have fired Bell as my email provider and will soon fire them as my ISP as well.


  11. My email address was the last thing keeping me with Bell Internet. The new system is bugly slow goes down and basically a piece of crap. Bye Bell. ..

  12. Avatar Kent Hunter-Duvar says:

    Thanks for explaining that Frank. Bell was late to the internet game. I was with an independant ISP long before their Sympatico service was available. As with many large corporations, they entered the market, without really understanding what they were getting in to. Inadequate infrastructure and not enough people. Let’s not get into their customized web browsers, etc. And they wanted you to think you had to install and use them.
    All I can say about the email fiasco is, I’m not at all surprised.

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