Wiikwemkoong registers complaint, local municipalities agree Hwy 6 maintenance in wintertime needs improving

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MANITOULIN – Three eastern Manitoulin communities have raised the alarm over what they feel are poor highway maintenance conditions on Highway 6 between Little Current and South Baymouth. 

On December 17, Wiikwemkong Unceded Territories Ogimaa Duke Peltier wrote to the Honourable Caroline Mulroney, minister of Transportation. 

“Recently, several Wiikwemkoong Unceded citizens have notified me about hazardous road conditions on Highway 6 from Little Current to South Baymouth, Manitoulin Island,” the ogimaa wrote. “Apparently, there has been no salt put on the roads after there has been a considerable amount of snowfall. This has caused alarm in Wiikwemkoong, the largest First Nation on Manitoulin. As we are totally reliant on Highway 6 to travel anywhere on or off the Island, this is a major concern to us. Please ensure that there is proper winter maintenance on Highway 6.”

The MTO’s regional highway maintenance contract holder for Manitoulin, including plowing, is Emcon.

The Township of Assiginack recently followed suit, also writing a letter to Minister Mulroney.

“I would like to add the voice of my community to those of Wiikwemkoong and others on the Manitoulin concerning the glaring discrepancy regarding winter maintenance on sections of Highway 6 and likely other provincial highways on the Manitoulin Island,” Assiginack Mayor Dave Ham wrote. “There is an apparent difference in salt application which is causing safety concerns for members of our community. It is a serious problem when our local (municipal) roads are maintained to a higher standard than are the provincial highways that are used to access them. We have been unable to secure answers from the MTO contractor and we respectfully ask that whatever reasoning was used to differentiate between communities be re-examined immediately. We are also not impressed that there is apparently no contact for the contractor in the Province of Ontario that works.”

“We would ask that your officials confirm with our staff and those of our neighbouring communities that these issues have been dealt with in a timely fashion as lives are literally on your roads,” Mayor Ham added.

At its last meeting of the year, Northeast Town council also passed a motion to write to the Minister of Transportation in support of Wiikwemkoong’s original letter.

Councillor Bill Koehler shared a story about a recent trip taken from Sheguiandah to High Falls on “glare ice” with what appeared to be a lack of maintenance for a “long period of time.”

Councillor Bruce Wood agreed, stating that on December 13 “the highway was a mess. You either had to travel slow or go in the ditch. I can see why Wiiky is complaining.”

“I travel that way almost daily and there’s certainly a divide that needs to be brought to the attention of the minister,” Councillor Jim Ferguson added.

A letter to the editor in the December 23, 2020 paper from Jane Rohn of Assiginack also highlighted concerns with Highway 6 conditions.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha told The Expositor he spoke with the MTO about this particular complaint and was told they had performed a “complete investigation” and could not understand why calls were not being returned. The MTO did also investigate the complaints by Wiikemkoong, Assiginack and the Northeast Town and told the MPP that Emcon was in complete compliance, the same response provided to The Expositor.

“I told them I respectfully disagree,” he said. “The problem is the service maintenance agreement with the province. There aren’t enough plows, the turnaround times aren’t quick enough, there’s not enough sand, there’s not enough salt.” Mr. Mantha said he urged the bureaucrat with whom he spoke to get this message across to the powers that be in Toronto.

Mr. Mantha said he’s been hearing more and more from his constituents across the riding about their concerns with highway maintenance contractors, including Espanola, Manitoulin, St. Joseph’s Island, Wawa, Chapleau and Manitouwadge. “We’re seeing this again and again.”

Mr. Mantha said his biggest pet peeve is that the MTO is the organization that is doling out the contracts, but also doing the investigation. He believes that this job should fall to a different government group or public employee to keep things impartial.

“We’re just starting out our winter and we have a few months to go, but I don’t think this is the last conversation we’ll be having on this,” he predicted.

Mr. Mantha also shared the numbers to reach Emcon offices for this region and suggested all those who have concerns with winter maintenance could reach it at 1-844-362-6615.

In response to a request from this newspaper regarding the upswing in complaints on Highway 6 maintenance, Carole Paiement, communications co-ordinator for the MTO, Northeast region, told The Expositor, “Our government has taken a number of actions to keep Ontario’s roads and highways safe during the winter months, recognizing the challenges this season brings to drivers. Ontario continues to have some of the highest winter maintenance standards in North America. We have increased the proactive application of anti-icing liquids in advance of winter storms and the number of winter maintenance equipment available to fight winter weather. We have strengthened the oversight of our private contractors and are working with them to move quicker to clear highways when snow begins to fall.” 

“The maintenance contract for Highway 6 on Manitoulin Island from Little Current to South Baymouth requires the contractor to continually service the highway during a winter event, to achieve center bare pavement within 24 hours following the end of the winter event, and fully bare pavement when weather conditions permit.  

“Ministry contractors continually monitor weather and road conditions to efficiently prepare and respond to winter storm events. Our contractors are required to meet our ministry’s standards and contract requirements. We monitor and audit contractors’ operations to ensure that they have responded within the first 30 minutes at the start of a storm, commenced plowing operations when no more than two centimeters of snow has accumulated, used appropriate equipment and restored roads to the bare pavement standard.”

When contacted on Monday, Ogimaa Peltier said he had yet to see a response from the MTO.