Assiginack Councillor Leslie Fields highlights OPP’s community role

MANITOWANING—Following a presentation by Manitoulin Detachment Commander Staff Sergeant Kevin Webb to Assiginack’s reeve and council last week regarding the possible closure of the Ontario Provincial Police Manitowaning office, The Expositor sat down with longtime Manitowaning resident and councillor Leslie Fields for her thoughts on the importance of having a police presence in the municipality, not only in terms of safety, but community too.

Ms. Fields explained that the Manitowaning station began as a one-room office located in the old Hembruff Apartments building on Queen Street in 1951, where it was staffed by Constable Neville Ross. An office has been maintained in Manitowaning ever since, and after major renovations in 1995 the detachment was designated as the main office for all of Manitoulin in 1997.

“Currently, there are four uniform members and one civilian staff stationed at the Manitowaning office and reside within the catchment area,” Ms. Fields said. “In addition to these four officers, two other uniform officers, stationed out of Mindemoya but who reside within the Manitowaning area, start and finish their shifts from the Manitowaning office.”

During the council meeting with Staff Sergeant Webb, Ms. Fields shared her concerns that without an office in Manitowaning, the community could lose valuable citizens.

“The Manitowaning Guardian Pharmacy is owned and operated by pharmacist Michele Hart, spouse of Detective Constable Steve Hart,” she explained. “Joanne Mellan, our nurse practitioner at the Manitowaning Family Health Team (FHT), is the spouse of Provincial Constable Rob Mellan. The FHT also includes Leanne Hovingh, a registered nurse and spouse of Constable Mark Hovingh. Jennifer Ferguson, daughter of Carol Ferguson, the detachment’s administrative clerk, is a full time teacher at Assiginack Public School.”

“The services that these individuals provide are essential to the community and can be directly related to the fact that the Manitowaning office is the posting for their direct family members,” she continued. “A large portion of these incomes, as well as those earned by OPP officers and their support staff, remain within the community.”

Another factor that may not be immediately obvious is the amount of retired members and their spouses who have chosen to make this area their home, Ms. Fields said. These include retired Sgt. Graham Lloyd, Retired Staff Sgt. JJ McCabe, retired Staff Sgt. Andy Atchison, retired Constable Rick Ross (son of the late Neville Ross), retired Constable George Rhijnsberger, retired Constable Larry Killens and retired Constable Pax McKenna. The latter two reside in Tehkummah which was traditionally part of the Manitowaning patrol area. “This list would also include Marilyn Logan and Bill Smith, retired civilian employees,” Ms. Fields said. “All of these members were stationed at the Manitowaning office during their career. They not only are ratepayers within the community, but as in their professional lives they and their spouses continue to serve and support countless organizations and activities. The volunteer hours that they log are outstanding. They belong to church organizations, clubs for seniors, the Lions Club, Curling Club, and Rainbow Ridge Golf Club, to name a few.”

“Jim White,” she pointed out, “served with the Espanola OPP and returned home to run a successful gas station and garage. It continues to operate under the direction of his son Bob and his family. Gary Reid, retired OPP officer who served in Manitowaning, is now the Chief of Police for the Wikwemikong Tribal Police Force.”

“Larry Killens, retired OPP officer who served in Manitowaning, is now in his second term as the Manitoulin representative on the Rainbow District School Board,” Ms. Fields continued. “George Rhijnsberger, retired OPP officer who served in Manitowaning, owns and operates one of the busiest greenhouses and garden centres in Northern Ontario.”

Retired Sergeant Graham Lloyd was among the prime movers who organized the Rainbow Ridge Golf Course, she added.

“The OPP’s impact on youth in this community has been recognized and appreciated for generations,” she added. “One only needs to walk through our local arena to see the pictures of Manitowaning minor hockey teams and the faces of past and present detachment members standing as coaches and trainers. The children of past and present detachment members can be found in Assiginack Public School and Manitoulin Secondary School class photos. Unfortunately, with the likelihood that new members of the OPP will reside close to the community in which their detachment office is located, there will be a direct negative affect on the school and youth organizations within the town of Manitowaning. Young people from the community have benefited immeasurably from the mentoring of off-duty officers in the traditional Manitoulin activities of fishing, hunting, trapping and boating. Basketball, volleyball, softball, and mountain biking events have been planned, organized and financially supported by individual members of the OPP and their families.”

“Officers from the Manitowaning office, in partnership with local health care providers, have developed a highly successful, hands-on WilderMed program to train medical students, first responders and those involved with search and rescue operations in remote and challenging locations,” she continued. “Children from OPP families have been, and are, leaders within our schools. They babysit, write a high school column for the paper (Laura Hovingh is the co-author of the weekly MSS news columns Kids in the Halls in the Expositor), work in our shops and businesses, attend our churches and participate in local theatre and all aspects of our municipal recreation programs. One young woman, Kelsey Mellan, has recently won international recognition in the Special Olympics World Winter Games. A number of children of former OPP officers have completed their education and joined law enforcement agencies across the province. Others have returned to Manitoulin as teachers, nurses, business people and summer residents.”

Ms. Fields said she doesn’t doubt that the OPP would continue to provide the best police service possible to the Manitoulin community it serves. However, she said, the loss of the detachment would lead to a natural loss of OPP members living within the immediate Manitowaning area. “As those officers who currently reside within the detachment area retire (most of which will occur within the next five years) their replacements will undoubtedly choose to live closer to the detachment area in which they will report,” Ms. Fields said. “This will result in less of a police presence in the Manitowaning and South Eastern Manitoulin areas. The impact would not be just the loss of the marked cruiser or the uniform walking through town, but as anyone who has worked or lived in a small community knows, the ‘town cop’ who lives in town is identified as such whether he or she is line for groceries or at the beach with their kids. This is accepted by those who serve as part of the job. It is seen as a sense of community security to all who live within that community.”

“If, when current OPP officers working in the Manitowaning area begin to retire and are not replaced, the socio-economic impact to this area of Manitoulin will be significant,” Ms. Fields concluded. “In times when all small communities are struggling, the loss of well-educated, highly trained professionals who earn respectable salaries will negatively influence the viability of small town, rural Ontario.”

Alicia McCutcheon