To date, Billings Township only municipality on Manitoulin declaring emergency status

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MANITOULIN – Last Wednesday, Billings Mayor Ian Anderson declared a state of emergency at a council meeting, making the township the only Island municipality to do so thus far; the Municipality of Central Manitoulin and the Northeast Town have conversely declined to declare such a state of emergency.

A mayor or reeve has the authority to declare a state of emergency within their municipality, but those elected officials generally do so in consultation with their councils. 

Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens brought forward a Manitoulin Municipal Association request from several First Nation chiefs to declare that a state of emergency exists across Manitoulin, in order to create a united front when calling on the province to allow for a checkpoint at the swing bridge in Little Current.

Although there was some support voiced by council members at the April 23 meeting of council held through the meeting application Zoom, in the end the mayor decided that there was not sufficient reason to make the formal declaration of a state of emergency.

“We discussed an Island-wide emergency that didn’t get full support,” noted Mayor Stephens. He said a question had been forwarded to the Solicitor General and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) asked if, should all of the municipalities and First Nations declare states of emergencies “would we have the authority to tell cottagers and summer residents to stay in their primary places of residence.”

Following the circuitous changes of command through the various ministries seeking a definitive answer the mayor came up short, being told by their fieldworker at the MMAH that it was “a legal question” and to consult their solicitor. “In other words, we did not get a definitive answer,” he said. “That is where we sit at this stage.”

Councillor Steve Shaffer said that his “only question, concern, is liability for the volunteers.” He went on to query whether the municipality’s insurance would cover volunteers operating a checkpoint at the Little Current swing bridge.

CAO Ruth Frawley said that she had thought long and hard about the question, and the ancillary issue of whether they would be covered under WSIB as well. She came to the conclusion that such volunteers would be counted as under the municipality’s liability. “The same as anyone working on any of our committees.”

“I can’t see anything to be gained,” said Mayor Stephens, referencing the declaration of a state of emergency. “We don’t gain any special powers; it doesn’t gain us any more money, unless someone can tell me any different.”

Councillor Derek Stephens referenced the large number of Facebook and other social media posts calling for some sort of monitoring of who is coming onto the Island over the bridge. “The chiefs are just asking us to go along with them in declaring an emergency,” he said. “We would be supporting our neighbours, Billings and M’Chigeeng First Nation.”

Councillor Rose Diebolt said that council should “take a look at the big picture.” She added that the pandemic is not going to go be going away any time soon and that cottagers should be practicing social distancing, but “if they own a cottage and pay taxes they should be able to go to their property.”

“I had that thought too,” said the mayor, adding that he did not think it was time to impose that type of restriction on people’s rights and freedoms since the province and the federal government have not seen fit to impose such restrictions. Should the municipalities go that route on their own, “cottagers would resent it.”

Councillor Dale Scott countered that with all of the Island communities standing united, there would be increased influence in dealing with the provincial government.

Councillor Shaffer noted that declaring a state of emergency would “just add another layer of bureaucracy” and add to the burden of municipal staff. 

“Thank you for acknowledging that,” said CAO Frawley. “It would be a huge burden. Everything we are doing would have to be dropped.”

“If things change it can be revisited,” said Mayor Stephens in closing the debate.

Last week Billings mayor Ian Anderson told his council that information provided by township staff explains, “a declaration of emergency provides a municipality’s head of council the authority to take actions or make orders, which are not contrary to law, in order to protect the inhabitants in the area of the emergency. The township’s emergency plan would be enacted and decision-making authority with respect to the emergency would be transferred to the emergency control group as outlined in that plan. A declaration of emergency underscores the seriousness of the situation. Manitoulin is not immune to this global crisis and physical distancing, isolation and hygiene measures are just as important here as they are elsewhere. A declaration sends a strong, clear message to residents and neighbouring municipalities that the municipality is taking the current situation seriously and is taking every step that they can to protect residents from the threat. A declaration of emergency provides some additional rationale and potential reduction in liability for reducing municipal services if necessary. However, a declaration does not necessarily provide access to funding.”

“Virtually all the Manitoulin First Nations have declared a state of emergency in their First Nations,” said Mayor Anderson. “I think it’s really important to show solidarity and support that we are all in this together.”

In the Northeast Town, Mayor Al MacNevin told his council at last Tuesday’s meeting that at this time, he would not support a state of emergency in that municipality.