Editorial: The middle of a pandemic is no time for brinkmanship

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Crisis calls for strong leadership and decisive action, but it is also a time when unity is of the utmost importance and that is most often accomplished through careful and considered diplomacy and negotiation, rarely through lines drawn in the sand and escalating retaliatory measures.

The middle of a crisis is a time when emotions run high and people tend more toward the hardening of positions and the making of snap decisions. The accompanying stress takes a devastating toll both on leaders and the general public, putting even more stress on those who would be peacemakers seeking to build bridges and find accommodation between groups with differing positions and interests. Too often the common ground that exists between groups is overlooked while points of contention are amplified.

Being a peacemaker in times such as these presents the most difficult of tasks, as often reason, the key building block of compromise, left the building some time ago. Crisis has a way of bringing along its cousins: hysteria, anger, despair and blame—none of which are much help when trying to build consensus.

The plain point of fact is that Manitoulin’s numbers at the height of this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic speak volumes for the Island’s adherence to infectious countermeasures. Only two officially recognized cases have been identified on Manitoulin and those were a couple who came back from a trip to Australia and did everything right when they got home. That is an amazing accomplishment of which we can all be justifiably proud—but should not lead us into becoming complacent.

The point is, all of us, summer residents included, have been following the recommendations to maintain physical distancing and limiting our interactions with others by an overwhelming margin.

True, we would all like people to stay home and exhortations to that effect are legion, coming from all levels of government and health authorities alike.

Lately, several communities have taken it upon themselves to limit travel into and through their communities. In the case of those communities with only one way in and out, this was pretty simple to implement, did not require immense resources, could be done with relative safely and did not unduly impact other communities.

The decision to block travel on two provincial highways through the community of M’Chigeeng was not simple. It invades people’s privacy without due authority, nor is it safe, as by many accounts not only are the rules on what the province or the federal governments lists as essential workers and travel not being implemented consistently, the “checkpoint” is also placing volunteers and the travelling public in unnecessary harms’ way by utilizing inadequately trained volunteers. These comments will undoubtedly invoke loud and emotional pushback from supporters of the highway blockades.

On the other side of the coin, the community of M’Chigeeng has determined that many of those travelling though the checkpoints are people coming from off-Island communities; often enough, those travellers are coming from areas defined as hotspots for the pandemic. The residents of M’Chigeeng have a perfect right to be concerned and cannot be blamed for wanting to keep the virus out of their community.

But the truth is all too evident that the restrictions on travel are being bent, and in some cases ignored. The impact on M’Chigeeng businesses are so significant that a pushback within the community has now broken ranks with the leadership and are opposing the travel restriction. A neighbouring municipality has declared a state of emergency, freely admitting it was not for any reasons of good government, but rather to show solidarity. That might have been a good course of action for other Island municipalities, but a joint declaration of emergency would have done little of substance to influence the province to allow a checkpoint at the swing bridge to turn back property owners.

Especially when it appears that other agendas are in play.

M’Chigeeng’s decision to only grant ‘travel passes’ to those from Billings and the unorganized townships is simple naked retribution being visited on the residents of other Island communities and is completely political in nature and even worse such actions are not likely to accomplish anything in the way of reconciliation between communities.

There is no evidence, period, that the virus could be transmitted by the occupants of a vehicle travelling on the highway through a community. The concerns of M’Chigeeng are focused on those who would travel into their community, stopping to conduct business or to visit people there, not on those travelling through to their own homes, in whatever Island community in which they live. But M’Chigeeng is also attempting to extend its authority to the rest of Manitoulin, and placing the burden of heavy traffic onto their neighbours as a side effect.

The Northeast Town’s decision to appeal to the province to intervene in the dispute, and then to launch a news release to publicly make its case also comes across as a political move in a game of brinkmanship where statesmanship and quiet diplomacy might have been able to find a way through. Instead, the leadership of both sides are playing to the worst emotions being expressed in their respective communities. Like most disputes, both sides in the highway dispute claim exclusively that “right” is on their side, and as is the case in most escalations of disputes between politicians and their communities, it is the little folks who get hurt the most.

The inability to find a compromise solution to the concerns of the leadership of M’Chigeeng and the municipalities is a clear failure on the part of both leaderships. Instead of getting bogged down on who is right, who has the right and where God’s toes might fall on the head of a pin, these are times when our collective leaderships should be finding a way forward that will meet the needs of both communities, or at least something both sides can live with.

This is a time when we all need to work together, and according to the plain truth demonstrated by the evidence at hand, the vast majority of both sides are doing just that—working together to keep us all safe.

It is time for our politicians to stop playing politics, base their decisions on the guidelines of medical authorities and find a way to work together to solve the present impasse.

As for the rest of us, let’s ratchet down the rhetoric that is providing cover for those politicians in both camps seeking to take the easy way out by playing to populist sentiments. Let each of us take a deep breath, try to recognise that the other side might have some valid points and encourage our leaders to find solutions, not retributions.

Above all, try extremely hard to simply be… kind.