Municipal leaders outraged by lack of consultation
by Warren Schlote and Michael Erskine
MANITOULIN – The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) has announced that it will be shuttering two detachment offices on Manitoulin Island shortly after the new mega-detachment opens in Little Current, sparking deep concern and outrage among municipal leaders who were not consulted and worry that closing the Mindemoya and Manitowaning detachments will negatively impact policing on Manitoulin Island despite police reassurance that service will not degrade.
“When these decisions are made, local OPP are consulted but the decision is also provincial. We provide reports on an annual basis of how our operational process is going; those filter through to the general headquarters in Orillia,” said Inspector Megan Moriarity (formerly Cavanagh), detachment commander of Manitoulin OPP.
“I will say, though, our own employees were only notified in the past month,” she added.
The news came as a shock to police staffers and municipal leaders alike.
The reaction of Island elected leaders to the closure news ran the gamut from resigned dismay to outraged indignation—with some concerns about the future thrown in for good measure.
Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens was one of those who expressed dismay. “We were blindsided by the decision to mothball our local station,” he said, noting that he first learned of the details behind the decision when he received a letter inviting him to join other municipal leaders for a briefing at the new OPP detachment headquarters in Little Current.
“It was plain that the decision was made by the time we got that letter,” he said. The decision to close the satellite offices took place without consultation, despite assurances that such consultation would take place when the $12 million new headquarters was announced for Little Current.
“They did apologize for that,” said Mayor Stephens. “They obviously had the answers ready.”
The removal of the detachment from Mindemoya has considerable ancillary impact, particularly on Manitoulin Family Resources and its Haven House women’s shelter located next door. Although that detachment has not been occupied consistently by a police officer for quite some time, there was almost always a police cruiser parked at the building.
“The sergeant at the meeting said that wasn’t the case,” said Mayor Stephens, “but I informed him that I drive by that location nearly every single day. That did provide a lot of people with a certain sense of security in the community.”
Mary Nelder was the first executive director of Haven House. She recalled the comfort that the nearby police presence provided.
“The decision to locate the facility there was made before the board hired me,” she said. “But I can tell you we were not at all unhappy about being beside a police station, even if it was not staffed full-time. It was when I first started.”
Losing a police detachment is nothing new for Assiginack Mayor Dave Ham, who was at the helm the last time the OPP decided to pull the detachment from that community.
“The first I learned of it back then was when I saw them taking out the filing cabinets from the building,” he recalled. “That was during the Mike Harris years when there were a lot of cutbacks taking place.”
“I picked up the phone and called; he said it was the first that he had heard about it,” said Mayor Ham. “Mike Harris was not in favour of the expansion that had taken place in the OPP in Ontario at that time.”
Mayor Ham said his community was far better served when they had an RCMP detachment located in the community. “There were four constables here all the time,” he said. “They did a fabulous job.”
In response to this latest news, Mayor Ham didn’t mince words. “I am absolutely blown away about it,” he said, sharing his displeasure.
“We have the largest density of population in this part of the Island,” he said. “There are over 5,000 people located here.”
“If I ran my business like they run that I would have been bankrupt 20 years ago,” he said. “It’s silly, they could have done it (the new detachment) a lot cheaper.”
Municipal councillors are not impressed with the lack of consultation, given that the OPP contract represents the largest part of their budgets. “We spend $530,000 a year,” said Mayor Stephens. But when he brought that up at the meeting in the new detachment, the reaction was muted. “It didn’t seem to faze them,” he said, noting that although there might be compelling reasons to close the detachments, the broken promise was particularly galling.
“It’s a beautiful station,” said Mayor Stephens. “We were given a tour, there are all kinds of hallways and alleys.” But when it came to the feared closures during the discussions over the new headquarters, “we received some assurances that was not going to happen.”
“That’s just it,” said Central Manitoulin Councillor Steve Shaffer, who sits on the Community Policing Advisory Committee but was clear he did not speak for the council on the matter.
“When there was quite a discussion about this in 2017, they assured us of community consultation.”
Councillor Shaffer said that “given the sheer size of the building, it (the closures) doesn’t come as a surprise.”
But he questioned the scale of the lack of consultation. “It speaks volumes when even Mike Mantha, our (Algoma-Manitoulin) MPP, didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “It’s like this process all took place totally in a vacuum.”
The government confirmed in October 2016 that Manitoulin would be getting a new central detachment in Little Current as part of phase two of the OPP modernization project within the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Discussions of possible detachment closures had surfaced in Assiginack council meetings when that township was concerned about rumours that the Manitowaning station would be closing.
Staff sergeant Kevin Webb, then the Manitoulin OPP detachment commander, has previously stated that closing the old police buildings on Manitoulin Island was an ‘inevitable’ outcome. However, he repeatedly assured municipal officials that community input would be a crucial part of any potential closure talks, speaking most directly to this at a 2017 council meeting in the Municipality of Central Manitoulin.
“Once the (new central detachment) is constructed and officers have been moved in, we will then be able to start talking about possible detachment office closures and we will undertake consultations with the municipalities and stakeholders. I will have to do an analytical representation of the four detachments and the calls for service, geography and consultation with the affected municipalities and (OPP) members who work in the OPP buildings,” he told the meeting.
The actual process followed three years later appears to be far from that ideal.
A July 14 letter from Inspector Moriarity to Island municipal leaders stated that a review process aimed at finding efficiencies and re-investment opportunities named the Mindemoya and Manitowaning detachments as candidates for closure. They will officially shut their doors on October 2 and the officers who previously reported to those centres will now report to the Little Current hub.
“These decisions are not made lightly and, overall, it’s not going to affect the policing services that are provided to communities,” said Inspector Moriarity, adding that she was not present in past meetings about the project and was unable to comment on them directly.
“I don’t know for sure when the decisions were made to do these things but there is a process we have to follow,” she said.
Inspector Moriarity redirected further questions about the normal consultation process and estimated cost savings to Infrastructure Ontario, the provincial Crown agency that oversees public development projects in Ontario.
Spokesperson Cary Migneault said those inquiries would fall under the purview of the OPP, which was unable to provide further comment by press time Monday.
The letter to municipal officials indicate that the two buildings, each more than 40 years old according to the detachment commander, would have required prohibitive expenses to bring them up to accessibility and operational requirements.
The new Little Current detachment opens for use on August 19 and has been designed to address accessibility and health and safety needs for both the public and officers. There is ample on-site storage, electronic fingerprinting tools, enhanced security in prisoner areas and victim services has an office within the building.
There is a modernized generator system at the new detachment and plenty of parking, both significant improvements over the existing Little Current detachment located in an 88-year-old former home.
The public has not had access to either the Mindemoya or Manitowaning detachments for some time, nor have they had functional holding cells. The buildings were used as office spaces and could not accommodate key police services such as fingerprinting.
“OPP is always constantly evaluating its services and the province of Ontario is always evaluating efficiencies and how to better deliver police services in a fiscally responsible way,” said Inspector Moriarity.
She was unable to provide an answer by press time Monday as to what cost savings may be achieved by closing the two detachments.
In the detachment commander’s view, the level of policing available to Manitoulin Island residents will not be impacted by the two closures.
“With modern policing tools, the (officers’) vehicles have become somewhat of their office. They have in-car computers, printers and a cell phone so the need to go back to the office after every call has become virtually nonexistent. That way, they can remain in the communities and provide safety services,” said Inspector Moriarity.
Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service (WTPS) Police Chief Terry McCaffrey agreed that the rise of car-based mobile data terminals would have contributed to the diminished need of office spaces around the OPP service area.
“It does not come as a surprise that the deployment model is being modified to a centralized response process,” he said in an emailed statement. “I have further had discussions with Inspector Moriarity to solidify our mutual partnership that WTPS will be available to assist Manitoulin OPP if ever needed.”
The promised benefits of modern in-car technologies allayed some of Tehkummah Reeve David Jaggard’s concerns, though he said the limited staffing on Manitoulin Island remains a challenge.
“I can’t see (closing the two detachments) making much difference to the way policing is presently being done. You hear of incidents where there’s long wait times and so on, but whether those places are open or not, it won’t make a big difference,” he said.
Inspector Moriarity said there would be no staffing reductions once the satellite locations close.
“Our staffing levels right now are higher than they have ever been in the past five years,” she said, but declined to disclose the total number of officers in the detachment. “Come this fall, we’re slated to receive three new recruits.”
Despite the closures, Inspector Moriarity said there were still opportunities for communities to host policing spaces.
“Municipalities have the option of having a community police office. This is a spot the municipality provides a location for the officers to attend and work from (a small office space). Community policing offices are a safe place for residents to access services and participate in programs focused on crime prevention and community safety,” she wrote in an email to The Expositor.
While OPP will provide any necessary equipment for these spaces, the cost of operating a community police office would fall to the municipality.
It’s a concept that has been tried on Manitoulin Island before. Tehkummah hosted a community policing office for a period of time but it has since closed down. Former reeve Gary Brown could not be reached for information by press time Monday.
The lack of consultation was disconcerting for Gore Bay Mayor Dan Osborne. “Obviously I am happy that they chose to keep the Gore Bay station open,” he said. “But I am not happy with the way they did it.”
With rumours swirling in the community about the potential moving of the courthouse, it would be better if assurances given to communities over consultation were built on firmer ground. “It’s typical government,” he said. “Everything is done on a dollars/numbers basis and they don’t think about the community.”
As for the loss of the other two satellite stations, Mayor Osborne said he felt for those communities. “When it comes to Manitoulin, we are really all one big community.”
Billings Mayor Ian Anderson declined to comment on the matter as he did not attend the meeting at the new detachment headquarters and had not had time yet to discuss the matter with his council. “Anything I would have to say would be my own opinion,” he said.
Mayor Anderson said he did have one question, however: “What is going to happen with the two conservation officers based in the Manitowaning office?” he asked.
Inspector Moriarity was unable to provide an answer to that question by press time Monday.