United Chiefs and Councils proposes unified COVID-19 response committee

Committee to have equal Indigenous, municipal representation for respectful open dialogue

MANITOULIN—The United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM) is working to form a co-ordinated leadership committee in response to the threat of COVID-19 with First Nation, municipal, health and public safety representatives to set a more positive tone moving forward and increase Island-wide collaboration in a challenging time.

“We don’t see a co-ordinated approach to COVID-19 on Manitoulin. Everybody seems to be doing different things and we need to get people working together,” UCCMM Tribal Chair Chief Patsy Corbiere, who is also chief of Aundeck Omni Kaning, told The Expositor in an interview.

“We’re sending out an olive branch … I’m sure we can deal with (these issues) together at the table and fix them. I really do. We’ve done it before, why can’t we do it again?” she added.

This past Friday, May 1, Chief Corbiere sent out a letter to the Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) to be redistributed to all of its member mayors and reeves. It stated that MMA has not considered for the health and safety of First Nations individuals on Manitoulin Island in its decision-making process and lacked representation from these communities.

The MMA is a group for municipalities to gather and discuss the issues they collectively face, dialogue about potential solutions and arrange for lobbying efforts if needed. It is not a decision-making body and instead allows for less formal discussions on measures that might be beneficial for member municipalities.

It has always had an understood ‘open door’ policy for First Nations to come and speak at the meetings, an offer that has been taken up by a handful of Island First Nations during this pandemic.

Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin agreed that the MMA is designed to address municipal issues, just as UCCMM is designed for the needs of its six constituent First Nations.

Tensions have increased in recent weeks since the start of a travel restriction in M’Chigeeng that has caused traffic snarls for Indigenous and non-Indigenous travellers alike.

Mayor MacNevin issued an open letter to the Ministry of Transportation last week denouncing the travel restriction because traffic was detouring on his municipality’s roads that were not up to highway standards. He also shared concern about the authority to restrict traffic on a provincial highway.

Both before and after the letter, the wild west of social media had been a powder keg of polarized commenters with aggressive opinions on the travel restriction and the prospect of seasonal visitors coming to Manitoulin this summer.

With the relatively small yet deeply connected social world on Manitoulin Island, any actions by a community resonate deeply with their neighbours. Given this unique quality, UCCMM lawyer Julian Falconer said he was shocked there was no co-ordinated response plan already in place.

“What’s being offered is clearly an olive branch designed to protect people. That’s a far cry from the negativity, including the notion of calling in the province, that is being bandied about,” said Mr. Falconer at a Monday afternoon press conference about the new committee.

Chief Corbiere said the committee is expected to have eight members, including an equal number of First Nation and municipal representatives and also experts in public safety and health.

The terms of reference for the committee have yet to be written but there is considerable interest in pursuing such a model. Mayor MacNevin has expressed his willingness to be a municipal representative, should he be requested to join.

“We want to focus on health, not politics,” said Chief Corbiere, adding that the way the Island responds to COVID-19 may have a lasting impact on tourism for years to come. “I think good things will come out of the committee but it needs to be formed, we need to agree to it and there needs to be equal representation.”

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha was also at the Monday press conference and said he supported the committee because he felt respectful dialogue was the only way to move forward constructively. He offered his assistance as an MPP to help promote the health and security of Island communities.

MMA chair Ken Noland did not respond to a request for comment by press time Monday.