Checkpoints on highways through M'Chigeeng First Nation 'unreasonable' neighbouring mayor says

M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island has set up a non-essential travel ban to keep out COVID-19. It includes checkpoints on two provincial highways that run through the community. But those blockades have created problems for drivers who use those highways to travel to others parts of the island.

Non-essential travel ban began April 25, to keep COVID-19 out of FN community

Chief and council of M'Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island issued a non-essential travel ban on April 25, which included checkpoints on Highway 540 and Highway 551. That angered drivers who use the provincial roads to travel to other parts of the island. (Erik White/CBC )

There's conflict brewing over two provincial highways on Manitoulin Island.

Highway 540 and Highway 551 both run through M'Chigeeng First Nation.

On April 25, Chief Linda Debassige and council instituted a non-essential travel ban, as a way to keep COVID-19 out of the community.

That ban includes checkpoints on the two roads where drivers are stopped and screened. Those deemed non-essential are prevented from continuing further.

In a notice, the chief stated that data collected showed a large amount of traffic coming through, and stopping in the community, which she said increased the risk of exposure to the virus.

"We continue to strongly encourage our members to stay home during this time," Debassige said.

The statement goes on to say this is an "unprecedented time that requires unprecedented measures to protect our loved ones as best we can."

"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."

The checkpoints have been operational for more than a week, and are reportedly caused headaches and frustrations for drivers who use the highways to get to other parts of Manitoulin.

Highways 540 and 551 through M'Chigeeng First Nation are some of the main routes across Manitoulin Island, but there are ways around the checkpoints on back roads. (Erik White/CBC )

Al MacNevin, mayor of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI), says he's heard those complaints.

Drivers who are turned away then must detour on back roads; some that are unfamiliar or not meant to handle extra traffic.

"They're finding themselves heading down roads and then ending up at a dead end, at a resort that's closed, on a gravel road and pulling into farmer's driveways to ask for directions to find their way back," MacNevin said.

"Not everybody that's being stopped is someone that's grown up or lived on the island for their life."

MacNevin believes the highway checkpoints have created an 'unreasonable burden' on other residents on Manitoulin Island.

"We're concerned that could escalate into a problem at a blockade that's not supervised by authorities such as police," he said.

MacNevin says the two roads are provincial highways, which means they fall under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

"If the province decides that the time has come to restrict travel then we expect they would issue an emergency order much like all the others we've worked with them on," MacNevin said

"Whether it's the closure of marinas, parks or trails, we've supported their efforts, and if and when they deem it necessary to restrict travel, we'll support that as well."

MacNevin has written a letter to the Minister of Transportation, Caroline Mulroney to intervene. A similar letter was copied to Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.

He heard from the MTO office staff on Friday that he should expect to be contacted for a conversation soon. 

In the meantime, MacNevin has proposed an alternative to M'Chigeeng First Nation.

Three other nearby First Nations also have provincial highways running through each of them. MacNevin says those communities are allowing vehicles to flow freely on the provincial roads, but have restricted traffic on roads that exit into their respective communities.

"It would make people safer and still allow the community to protect itself from people traveling in and out."

MacNevin understands M'Chigeeng First Nation's concern and agrees with encouraging people to stay home to help keep COVID-19 from spreading.

He has repeated a similar message to would-be visitors or cottage-owners on Manitoulin Island.

"The reality is that the province hasn't passed any regulations restricting travel between these communities so [domestic travelers within the province] are not breaking the law."

There are only two small hospitals on Manitoulin Island, and MacNevin says if visitors travel to the island the health care resources could be stretched thin if the pandemic worsens.

"Think about what the impact might be if you come at this point in time."

MacNevin has even been asked if the municipality would consider closing the swing bridge at Little Current, where most visitors travel on to Manitoulin.

"The reality is that's a provincial responsibility, we have no authority to close [the bridge] or stop people on a provincial highway," he said.

"We support the messages encouraging people to stay home, but our community does not believe that we should be [illegally] stopping people from traveling, and putting everybody at risk that's at those checkpoints," MacNevin said of the M'Chigeeng situation.

"We would like to find another solution."