Some municipalities request M’Chigeeng reconsider its travel ban, allow traffic to flow

Volunteers are busy operating the Highway 540 checkpoint, just before the hill leading into the community, on Monday afternoon. photo by Andrew Corbiere

WESTERN AND CENTRAL MANITOULIN – While supporting M’Chigeeng First Nation in its efforts to protect its residents from the threatening spread of COVID-19, Western Manitoulin municipalities along with Central Manitoulin are requesting that they revisit their non-essential travel ban to allow traffic to flow through on Highway 540 and Highway 551 and instead restrict access to exits off the highways, while still allowing access to essential services and businesses in M’Chigeeng. 

Burpee and Mills Reeve Ken Noland told the Recorder earlier this week, “I talked to all the mayors and reeves on Western and Central Manitoulin, as well as services board representatives in the townships of Robinson and Dawson, inquiring as to whether they would be in favour of a letter of request containing these changes being forwarded to M’Chigeeng First Nation, and they had all expressed their support for this.” 

In a letter dated May 4, 2020, sent to Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige and M’Chigeeng First Nation council from Mr. Noland on behalf of all the municipalities, he wrote, “Dear M’Chigeeng First Nation Ogimaa-kwe Linda Debassige and Council. Re: the non-essential travel ban that was put into effect by your council April 25, 2020. Central and Western Manitoulin (the municipal councils of Central Manitoulin, Billings, Gore Bay, Gordon/Barrie Island, Burpee and Mills, as well as representatives of the unorganized townships of Dawson and Robinson) unanimously support M’Chigeeng First Nation’s efforts to protect their residents from the threatening spread of COVID-19 virus.”

“Your non-essential travel ban is a serious cause of concern for our communities,” the letter states. “We respectfully request that M’Chigeeng First Nation’s council revisit this decision in consideration of amending your band council resolution BCR to permit traffic to flow directly through M’Chigeeng via Highway 540 and Highway 551. Your revised non-essential travel ban could be applied to all exits off Highway 540 and 551, with restricted access to essential services operating within your community. This revision would then mirror First Nation initiatives within the Manitoulin Island District, with highways connecting to other communities.”

“With non-residents of M’Chigeeng First Nation driving directly through your community, your objective of protecting your residents from COVID-19 would be achieved,” the municipal letter reads. “We anticipate continued positive dialogue between our municipalities and your First Nation in this fight against COVID-19 pandemic and other mutual concerns. Our councils respectfully submit this request for your consideration.” 

“It is an option that M’Chigeeng could explore,” said Reeve Noland. “It’s their call, and I look forward to receiving communication back from them.”

On Wednesday, April 29, Ogimaa-kwe Debassige had explained M’Chigeeng will be implementing a resident travel pass to allow passage through the community. “At this time we are offering this to permanent residents of Billings Township due to their declaration of a state of emergency,” she wrote. “We are also offering this to permanent residents of unorganized townships (Dawson and Robinson) as they do not have the ability to declare states of emergency.”

Residents of those communities must fill out an enrollment form which requires name, address, phone number and vehicle information, including licence plate number, as well as signing an acknowledgment form of M’Chigeeng’s protocols.

Ogimaa-kwe Debassige’s letter to municipal leaders stated, “there is a growing need for everyone to start taking this mater more seriously in how we effectively protect Manitoulin Island during this global pandemic. In M’Chigeeng we were both shocked and very pleased that Billings had declared a state of emergency and are taking this matter seriously. We all know that this virus is going to get here and will have major impacts to our communities.”

“We have instituted a non-essential travel ban in our community, which we have done so legally,” the ogimaa-kwe continues. “It does create an inconvenience; however, the reality is that the pandemic itself has created far greater inconvenience. For those who are unaware, Highway 540 through our community was never ceded to the province.”

“I continue to urge you all to declare states of emergency due to this public health crisis and to have greater ability in the future to work together to combat this virus, support the health care system and preserve human life,” she continued. “We are still willing to set up a non-essential travel checkpoint at the bridge and our offer still stands. We are willing to work with other communities who declare states of emergency and their permanent residents within those areas.”

The Northeast Town and Central Manitoulin have both indicated they will not be declaring a state of emergency.

“I support M’Chigeeng First Nation in what they are trying to do, to protect members of their community,” said Gore Bay Mayor Dan Osborne. “But I would rather they leave the highways open for flow-through traffic with no stopping of vehicles, and side roads being blocked off for access.”

As for declaring a state of emergency Mayor Osborne said, “I don’t feel we are to the point we need to make this declaration. The province has done a fairly good job of keeping people from travelling around and in promoting and encouraging physical distancing and the importance of hand-washing. I just feel if we had declared a state of emergency say two or three weeks ago, people would have forgotten. If we declare a state of emergency when it is imperative people will then stand up and pay attention and follow all requirements.”  

“As far as our municipality is concerned we haven’t discussed declaring a state of emergency,” said Lee Hayden, reeve of Gordon/Barrie Island. “But, at this point I do not believe a state of emergency is required for the municipality or the Island. There would be no advantage to calling a state of emergency ahead of the time it is needed.” 

“I just hope all of this doesn’t escalate; the action M’Chigeeng has taken has not helped the relationship with Western Manitoulin, Manitoulin Island and First Nations” said Reeve Hayden.

Tim McKinlay of the Robinson Local Services Board said, “the position of our boards was a unanimous no to applying for the border passes. But we still leave this up to individual residents to apply for the forms on their own if they want to.”

Richard Stephens, mayor of Central Manitoulin said, “we have to put all of this into perspective. If you remember we had an MMA (Manitoulin Municipal Association) meeting where the chiefs of several First Nations indicated most had already declared a state of emergency for their community and were encouraging the rest of the municipalities to do the same. As a group of municipalities we decided for the most part what was happening did not warrant declaring a state of emergency. At this point, personally, I don’t think there are any benefits to declaring a state of emergency at this time.” He added that he is in support of the letter that has been forwarded by Mr. Noland on behalf of Western Manitoulin and Central Manitoulin municipalities.