Mayor disappointed in MTO minister’s response on request for provincial intervention to end highway checkpoints

Mayor Al MacNevin

LITTLE CURRENT – The mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) expressed his disappointment in the answer provided by the Ontario Minister of Transportation in response to a request that the province of Ontario take the necessary steps to reopen Highway 540 and 551 to the travelling public. 

Both highways have been blocked since Saturday, April 25 when Chief Linda Debassige of M’Chigeeng First Nation implemented a travel ban under which any vehicle not meeting the terms deemed to be providing essential services by her council would not be permitted to travel through M’Chigeeng on either Highway 540 or Highway 551. 

“I’m disappointed again in the statement from the MTO (Ministry of Transportation)  that they are not going to interfere on the highway, and maybe that the OPP can, to look at resolving our concerns with the two highways having been blocked off, people being turned back, being interviewed and personal information having to be provided; and that this could escalate to the point that someone could stress out and someone could end up getting injured,” stated Mayor Al MacNevin on Tuesday. “I would have thought the people responsible for the highways should work toward a solution.” 

“There is no travel restriction in Ontario, only to state that travel should only occur when necessary, but who determines travel is necessary when people are going for groceries, medical supplies or appointments?” said Mayor MacNevin. “And, the police are only monitoring the blockades.” 

Caroline Mulroney, minister of Transportation, wrote to Mayor MacNevin in a letter dated May 11. “Thank you for your letter regarding M’Chigeeng First Nation checkpoints on Highway 540 and 551. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.”

“Nothing is more important than protecting the health and well-being of Ontarians,” wrote Minister Mulroney. “Since first learning of COVID-19, Ontario has taken decisive action to stop the spread of this new virus.”

“It is essential that the highway network continues to be available and in a good condition to allow for the efficient and effective movement of goods and people, including first responders and for supply chain management,” continued Minister Mulroney. “The Ministry of Transportation appreciates the uniqueness of Manitoulin Island and continues to work co-operatively with First Nation communities and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to find a solution to this matter. I do understand that the unofficial detour signs have been removed, which should help ease driver confusion and deterioration of municipal infrastructure.” 

Minister Mulroney noted, “only the OPP can enforce road closures and it would be inappropriate for the government to direct a police service to intervene. Questions about blockades and road closures should be directed to the OPP.” 

“All Ontarians need to stay home unless absolutely necessary for essential trips, such as accessing health care services, groceries, picking up medication, walking pets when required or supporting vulnerable community members with meeting essential needs. If you must leave your home, go alone and stay at least two metres apart from others. Thank you again for bringing these concerns to our attention.”

In his original letter to the Minister Mulroney, Mayor MacNevin states that the blockade has created several major issues that threaten the safety of the travelling public and that it places an unreasonable burden on the residents of Manitoulin Island that travel those highways. 

“As a result of M’Chigeeng’s decision to close two provincial highways, the municipality has seen a dramatic increase in traffic on several municipal roads that are being used to detour around the First Nation. Those roads are not designed for the volumes of traffic they are experiencing and the roads are particularly vulnerable during this period as half-load restrictions are in place. Rural residents are reporting that drivers who are unfamiliar with these roads are getting confused and requiring redirection and that drivers not conditioned on gravel roads are travelling at excessive speeds which poses a threat to other drivers and pedestrians walking those rural roads.” 

“Our immediate concern is that this situation will result in either accidents on our roads or an incident at the blockade on the highway,” wrote Mayor MacNevin. “We are all legitimately concerned about COVID-19 and want to protect our families, but we also need to remember the rule of law and that our actions, regardless of how well intended, can put others at risk. This blockade is not merely an inconvenience; it is a threat to the safety of the travelling public which needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It is clear that traffic should be travelling on the provincial highways and that the actions of the First Nation are frustrating motorists at a time when many people are already extremely stressed trying to deal with the implications of the current pandemic.”

“Everyone is at their wits end having been cooped up for months, and closing the highways has put another thing in front of them to cause grief,” said Mayor MacNevin. “I was hoping M’Chigeeng would follow the lead of other First Nations on the Island and the area in putting up signage and restricting access into the community but allowing traffic to flow through on the highways. And I am very disappointed the MTO is doing very little to come up with a solution.”