MSS Native Issues class argues for crosswalk

M’CHIGEENG—Stewart Roy’s Native Issues class at Manitoulin Secondary School decided to tackle a local issue as part of their studies. When they settled on an issue, however, it extended beyond a strictly ‘Native’ issue to one that impacts most of the students at their school.

The intersection of Highways 551 and 540 falls between students, teachers and staff at the school and their access, particularly as pedestrians, to the community fitness centre, many students’ homes and local restaurants and stores, as well as to the school’s emergency assembly centre for the school at the M’Chigeeng Community Centre. But that intersection, whose main feature is Paul’s Store, has little or no signage indicating that there is a school nearby.

“There is a tiny sign up the road on Highway 551, but that is for the children at the daycare at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation,” said Mr. Roy. “There is really nothing there indicating that this is a school zone, even though it has been a major crossing since 1969.”

The process of lobbying for a crosswalk at the intersection began with the students conducting in-depth research and surveys of their fellow students and community members.

The Rainbow District School Board, through of Director of Education Norm Blaseg and Manitoulin Secondary School Principal Laurie Zahnow, provided their blessings to the project as fully appropriate to the students’ course of study and the exercise of their democratic rights.

“This isn’t a protest movement or a demonstration,” said Mr. Roy. “This is students exercising their democratic prerogative to represent their concerns to the government using due process through traditional means.”

A delegation consisting of Mr. Roy and student Hannah Hutchinson presented their case to the January 21 meeting of the Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA), seeking that group’s support in the form of a letter to the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), and they came armed with stats, photos and illustrations of what the intersection could look like if properly marked. The students had hoped for a simple letter of support from the MMA, but in the end they received much more than that as each MMA member committed to bringing the issue back to their own municipalities for multiple letters of support as well.

During the presentation to the MMA, municipal representatives learned that 276 people had responded to the survey, 263 of whom were students and 13 were staff. Among those responding, 57 percent indicated they were frequent users of the crossing and 63 percent indicated there is a need for improved signage, 83 percent indicated they were in favour of crosswalk markings, 70 percent in favour of crosswalk signage and 51 percent were in favour of a flashing amber light.

More ominous statistics indicated that 14 percent of those pedestrians responding had experienced a close call with a passing vehicle at the intersection. “That is a lot,” said Mr. Roy. “Twenty-six percent of motorized travellers had experienced near accidents. Let’s do something before it does happen.”

The benefits the students identified included improving the crosswalk as a proactive approach that would improve the area to avoid negative consequences and would assure that students and other pedestrian users that the crosswalk is identified as a pedestrian safety zone.

“Did you look at the way that corner meets?” suggested Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens, pointing out that his community has a similar issue with a provincial highway intersection in their municipality. “It is not at a proper angle; you have to go right around the intersection to go back. I am surprised it took this long for this to become an issue.”

“I can’t imagine this group not supporting this issue,” agreed Central Manitoulin Councillor Patricia McDonald.

One of the slides created and presented by Ms. Hutchinson showed an individual in a wheelchair being rushed across the intersection, while another was of a school bus negotiating the turn toward Highway 551. “People use the turning lane on the right hand side as a passing lane,” noted Ms. Hutchinson.

Burpee and Mills Reeve Ken Noland brought forward the suggestion that each member bring the issue back to their own councils for an additional letter of support.

The following day, students awaited the arrival of Algoma Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha, to whom they repeated the presentation. Mr. Mantha was very supportive of the students’ position and promised to bring their concerns to the government. He then provided students with a series of political actions they could take to highlight the issue. Those included an expanded petition that would include their parents, siblings, friends and community members. The MPP also suggested that the students go to his website to see examples of how a petition to the legislature must be formatted. “I would be proud to present your petition to the legislature,” he said.

Mr. Mantha also exhorted the students to find the passion within them to make their communities, province and country a better place to live.

Principal Zahnow expressed her pride in how the students in Mr. Roy’s class were tackling the issue and how important it is that they learn the process. “They are the change,” she said. “It also gives them something to be passionate about. This is a wonderful project for them to learn how to navigate the process and about how to make real change.”

“Students need to learn how powerful their voices are and how powerful they can be,” Mr. Mantha added. “I want to come to them on their terms. There may come a time when I need them and if I am not there when they need me, they won’t be there when I need them. They are going to be the decision makers of tomorrow.”

“I found it really interesting,” said Ms. Hutchinson of the process. “It is an issue and it is a scary proposition crossing that intersection.” Ms. Hutchinson said that she found attending the MMA meeting to be an interesting experience.

The students intend to also present their case to the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising next and then submit their concerns to the MTO.

Full statements by Ms. Hutchinson, Mr. Mantha and Principal Zahnow can be found online at The Expositor website, manitoulin.ca.