COVID-19 'border crossings' on Manitoulin Island First Nation stirring up racial tensions

Tensions are rising on Manitoulin Island because a First Nation is stopping travellers on provincial highways that go through the community. But opinions on M'Chigeeng's attempt to protect its people from COVID-19 are not divided along racial lines. 

M'Chigeeng is stopping traffic on provincial highways and turning away 'non-essential' travellers

A guard watches over a checkpoint on Highway 551 heading into M'Chigeeng on Manitoulin Island. The First Nation has announced that it plans to decommission the border crossings. (Erik White/CBC)

As you come up to the border, there are signs warning you to have your travel documents ready and to be prepared to stop.

Border guards wearing orange vests and face masks ask your reason for travelling to M'Chigeeng First Nation.

The Manitoulin Island community started stopping traffic on provincial highways 540 and 551 on April 25.

The First Nation did not respond to interview requests, but has said publicly it is trying to keep COVID-19 from coming into its community, which like the rest of Manitoulin, currently has no reported cases.

"There are some people in the community who feel protected behind the border because they're seeing less traffic through the community," says M'Chigeeng citizen Lisa Corbiere-Addison. 

"It's denied other people's rights and that's where it went wrong."

A sign warning people to stay home greets travellers approaching the swing bridge to Manitoulin Island, where some feel there should be a checkpoint to keep non-islanders away. (Erik White/CBC)

She owns a garage in the community, which is an essential business, but says some of her customers haven't been let across the border.

"I've had people who have come to the blockade and have been let through with no problems. I've had people who were told, 'What you're going to do is not essential, so just turn around,'" says Corbiere-Addison.

"I had a farmer who came to make a purchase who was told he couldn't come and he just drove through the blockade."

She says there hasn't been a lot of consistency at the border and worries the closure is "still not going both ways" with people from M'Chigeeng allowed to freely travel around the island and beyond to Espanola and Sudbury.

"These checkpoints became a blockade and have denied the rights of many people," says Corbiere-Addison, who also teaches at Manitoulin Secondary School in M'Chigeeng.

"Enforcing a non-essential travel ban along with a border closure in our community will not stop that virus."

She is circulating a petition — which she says is a challenge in a time of physical distancing — asking the First Nation to only block access roads into M'Chigeeng and not the provincial highways, an approach many other First Nations are taking.

Corbiere-Addison worries that what she calls a blockade is stirring up racial tensions that will still be felt on the island when the pandemic has passed into history. 

"People on Manitoulin have grown up together," she says. 

"There's been ups and downs, but it's largely been respectful of one another and one another's rights."

Aundeck Omni Kaning and other Manitoulin First Nations are telling visitors to stay away, but have not impeded traffic on provincial highways. (Erik White/CBC)

There are still ways to drive around the checkpoints on back roads.

Billings Township has lowered the speed limit on a narrow winding gravel track called Jerusalem Hill Road because of increased traffic.

The neighbouring municipality has also struck a deal with M'Chigeeng allowing residents to apply for passes to get them across the border faster.

"There's not a lot of complaining, there are ways around, it is inconvenient. People are dealing with it. Are people happy about it? No. Is it going to change? I don't know," says Dan Osborne, mayor of the town of Gore Bay. 

"So far, it hasn't been too too bad."

Osborne says Manitoulin has "come together more in the last few years" and worries that the checkpoints have caused islanders to "maybe take a few steps backwards."

"I think social media is probably stirring the pot a lot more than it should, because people are walking around with half stories and putting them out there and starting fights," says Osborne. 

"As far as M'Chigeeng, I support them in everything they're doing. I would rather see it done a little differently in my opinion. But that's their community. I don't look at them any differently."

A lot of the discussion has popped up on two popular Facebook pages, including "Manitoulin Island COVID19 community support" which was started by Robin Malley.

She was surprised when it ballooned to 2,200 members and has taken on extra moderators to help control nasty comments. 

"Mostly calling people names," says Malley, who lives on Sheshegwaning First Nation. 

"I almost want to shut it down. I have that thought once and a while. But people like it. It's informative."

Some First Nations in northeastern Ontario have taken down their border crossing as COVID-19 fears ease, but others are keeping restrictions in place. (Erik White/CBC)

She too is unhappy to see racial divisions coming out during the pandemic, but not totally surprised.

"It's coming out more now. I think it's always been here," says Malley. 

She says Sheshegwaning is only letting people off the First Nation for "essential travel" and she recently made her first shopping trip into Gore Bay in almost two months and said she felt a "weird vibe" from non-Indigenous shoppers.

Malley says some of her neighbours don't like the restrictions the First Nation has put on them. Having a weak immune system, she feels its necessary to protect people from the virus. 

"Some like it and some don't. That's what I know," says Malley.

She agrees with what M'Chigeeng is doing and also agrees with other islanders who want to see all of Manitoulin united by a checkpoint at the swing bridge keeping all outsiders away from what's traditionally a tourist destination. 


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to