Manitoulin town asks province to get involved over highways in M'Chigeeng
SUDBURY -- An often laidback lifestyle on Manitoulin Island these days has been anything but since the start of COVID-19.
Public opinion is divided over a non-essential travel ban that has been enacted around M'Chigeeng First Nation and that has one mayor asking the province to get involved.
Al MacNevin, mayor of the town of Northeastern Manitoulin Islands, said the "blockade" creates several major issues and has threatened the safety of the travelling public. He said it's also created an unreasonable burden on the rest of Manitoulin Island.
"They're rerouted through the backroads on Manitoulin if they're not allowed to pass through M'Chigeeng and they're driving through roads that are less than highway standards," said MacNevin. "In the spring the roads tend to heave with the ice and the thaw and the half-load and they're not built for the volume of traffic that's being steered through there and we're concerned that something could happen, an accident," he explained.
He added people have been stressed and he's worried it wouldn't take much for something to happen at one of the checkpoints.
MacNevin has written Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney asking the province to get involved in hopes they can come up with a solution.
"The province is the only organization that has the authority to control provincial highways and both of the highways, 540 and 551, that go through the First Nation are provincial highways," he said.
The mayor says he's heard from a lot of people who are suggesting they close the bridge to the island to keep Manitoulin safe, but he believes the only authority who could take that step is the province.
He said he's been getting a lot of complaints from those who have been turned away, deemed non-essential at the checkpoint around M'Chigeeng.
Both the mayors of Billings township and Central Manoutlin declined to comment. CTV News has learned the Manitoulin Municipal Association is drafting a letter for the chief and council, expressing their concerns.
MacNevin said leaders from the island meet every Wednesday to address any outstanding issues.
CTV News has also reached out to Chief Linda Debassige for comment.
"We're getting somebody from southern Ontario everyday here, cottagers, people, I don't know what they're doing up here and we're trying to remind them this is supposed to be a travel ban for everybody," one guard at the checkpoint said. "Local travellers are issued passes to go through the community, if they're essential workers and stuff and people who just live on the other side of the reserve."
In Debassige's notice of non-essential travel ban, she outlined that they've seen traffic stopping within their borders. They're also seeing their own members travelling to places like Sudbury and Toronto where the risk of COVID-19 is higher.
"We understand this will cause much frustration and will create a huge inconvenience to all of our citizens and our neighbours, however the council has determined that the preservation of life and health of our community is the most important and is the determining factor of this decision," Debassige wrote in her letter.
The Ministry of Transportation said it does not act as a road authority and only the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) can enforce a road closure.
"The ministry appreciates the uniqueness of Manitoulin Island and continues to work cooperatively with First Nations communities and the OPP to support them in implementing their own measures related to the COVID-19 outbreak," the statement read. "All Ontarians need to stay home unless absolutely necessary for essential trips."
Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha said he's been in constant contact with the chief and local leaders on the island. He's been dealing with calls from constituents himself.
"We're in unprecedented times right now and what we need to do is to be mindful and respectful of the decision leadership has taken in order to protect their community members following the recommendations that have been put in place by the premier," said Mantha.
"The restrictions that were put in place are there to protect the community, it's one that was reached by the chief and council and I'm sure it was difficult to reach," Mantha said. "There are many municipalities across Manitoulin and some of them feel differently. Right now what people need to understand is this is not a blockade, the chief has made herself available to anybody who has questions or needs to have access."
The OPP said it remains committed to working with the First Nation and in helping in any way they can in keeping the peace.
The OPP has been asking Islanders to avoid the area if possible.