Hiawatha First Nation members block access to site where gas station being built on wetland

A checkpoint has been set up on the road leading into an Ontario First Nation to block work on a new gas station that opponents say is situated on a wetland.

Community members opposing development say they're concerned about environment

A checkpoint has been set up on the road leading into Hiawatha First Nation to block the development of a gas station. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

A checkpoint has been set up on the road leading into an Ontario First Nation to block work on a new gas station that opponents say is situated on a wetland.

Two hired security guards accompanied by half a dozen community members with a petition to stop the development control the flow of traffic into Hiawatha First Nation, a small reserve located 150 km northeast of Toronto.

"People are are upset because it's in a wetland," said Hiawatha First Nation Chief Laurie Cowie-Carr.

Community members say they are concerned around the potential environmental impact.

"There is a tributary there and they're putting tanks in the ground," said Tom Cowie, who opposes the project and works in resources consultation.

"It could very well affect the aquifer."

The site of the gas station development is next to a cigarette shop. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

He said it looked like there's been water diverted by filling in the wetland where the development is.

A community member, who works in a shop near the checkpoint, said she sees turtles and other wildlife crossing the road all the time. 

She takes photos of the turtles and said she recently she caught an image of a Blanding's turtle, which is listed as a threatened species under the Ontario Endangered Species Act and the federal Species at Risk Act. 

A Hiawatha First Nation community member took this photo of a Blanding's turtle along the stretch of road where the gas station development has started. (Submitted)

Competition for community-owned gas station 

Hiawatha First Nation currently has one gas station that is owned by the community. Profit goes back into the community through educational programming and investments for infrastructure.

Having a similar privately owned business would take away from the community-owned gas station. 

"What makes them think that they can do what they'd stop others from doing?" Band member Kim Muskratt asks. "Why is it okay for them?" 

Cindy Howard, a band member who was at the checkpoint showing support, said blocking the development was about  the environment, not about individuals or competition.

The community currently has a First Nation Council Resolution (FNCR) in place and has enacted a moratorium on all new business developments and expansions to existing businesses. 

Construction has halted after community members set up the road access checkpoint to not allow contractors in to continue development of gas station. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

The FNCR was passed on July 17, and Cowie-Carr said it will remain in place until the First Nation has finished developing its land code and comprehensive community plan.

"We'll be able to set up our standards with meaning from the community of how we want to see businesses proceed and what kind of assessments have to be done, like environmental and health risk assessments," she said. 

Without a land code, proposals for developments on reserve are first presented to chief and council but final approval is left with the federal government.

Indigenous Services Canada has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Three band members are involved in the development: Georgina Rogers, who owns an adjacent cigarette shop, former Chief Greg Cowie and Laura Shearer. 

An anonymous letter appeared in the mailboxes of Hiawatha First Nation community members on Wednesday. (Submitted by Kim Muskratt)

Those involved in the business have not responded to requests for comment.

An unsigned notice appeared in community members' mailboxes Wednesday titled "The facts not rumours" alleging Environment Canada has reviewed the gas station site and plans to approve the project. It goes on to say that gas stations do not harm the environment, that there are enough customers to support two or three gas stations and "this is about the fear of competition." 

Cowie-Carr said she and council are exploring all avenues to decide what their next step will be.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with CBC since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences.