SUDBURY – In response to what some Manitoulin Island leaders are calling “divisive politics” related in part to a First Nations highway barricade during the pandemic, the United Chiefs and Council of Mnidoo Mnising (UCCMM) is calling for the creation of a committee to take aim at COVID-19.
Indigenous and Municipal Island leadership met this week with regards to forming the COVID-19 Leadership Co-ordination Committee. Those who attended the meeting said there was “responsible dialogue” that took place, and a second meeting is scheduled for May 12, where they will discuss the technical makeup of that committee.
UCCM tribal council chair Patsy Corbiere, chief of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, said earlier this week in a telephone conference the goal is to bring Manitoulin Island’s Indigenous and non-Indegenous leaders together to fight COVID-19 and protect the health of their communities.
If successful in creating the committee, it would ideally be made up of eight members — four Indigenous and four non-Indigenous — and it would have a rotating chairperson.
The chief of UCCM Police has agreed to provide operational support for the committee, said Corbiere. She said the proposed committee is about co-ordinating the response of Island communities as a whole and preparing communities for what COVID is bringing next.
“As leaders, we are all responsible to put aside our political differences and to work collaboratively to come up with solutions that protect the people on the Island,” Corbiere said. “There is no room for the divisive politics that are currently taking place.”
Manitoulin Island has fared well in keeping away the virus. However, as the provincial and federal governments prepare to re-open the economy as the COVID-19 curve starts to flatten, it will mean an influx of seasonal cottagers and tourists, who may very well bring the virus with them.
Manitoulin Island has a population of about 13,500 in the off season, which more than doubles during the tourism season, Corbiere said. Much of the population is seniors, who are especially susceptible to the symptoms of COVID-19.
Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha said the committee would have his full support.
“We are seeing now that the provincial and the federal governments are looking at opening up the economy, and what is that going to look like, what does it mean, who will be impacted are questions and discussions we need to have, particularly focusing on Manitoulin Island,” Mantha said.
“We know there’s an influx of people who will be coming here. We know we are going to be dealing with the second wave, and potentially a third wave. We know these infections are going to come our way, which may lead to the loss of loved ones, and if we are not prepared to minimize that, we are doing ourselves a disservice.”
As the summer approaches, travel to Manitoulin Island is the normal way of life for people who live off the Island, Mantha said. While there is only one confirmed case of COVID-19 now, leaders have to be realistic about how vulnerable the population is, in particular, the elderly, to the influx of non-residents such as seasonal cottagers, people who are coming here from all over.
In regards to the “divisive politics,” as Corbiere called it, Mantha said he’s fielded numerous calls in the last few weeks.
“It has been a trying couple of weeks,” he said. “I’ve had many calls with concerns raised from a variety of views on Manitoulin, and quite frankly, across Ontario.”
The creation of this committee would provide an opportunity for open dialogue and fruitful discussions.
“We need to make sure the dialogue is respectful,” Mantha said. “This will not get resolved through letter-writing campaigns, nor will it get resolved through social media. It will get resolved through respect and dialogue.”
In particular, many Islanders have taken issue with the travel restrictions put in place by M’Chigeeng First Nation. Checkpoints have been set up around the community, with only people conducting essential travel allowed past.
Many have referred to the checkpoints as roadblocks or blockades and have expressed their displeasure with being turned away from entering the community.
In fact, the Manitoulin Expositor has reported a business owner within the community has started a petition calling on the chief and council to revisit travel restrictions.
Other Islanders have not been as politically correct in showing their dislike at barricades set up on Highway 540, 551 and Cross Hill Road.
“There are individuals who can go through the community, but they need a letter from the chief or the deputy chief in order to do so,” said Corbiere.“That’s their responsibility to do that. If it were a blockade, there would be no one going in or out, so there’s a misconception about what’s going on in M’Chigeeng First Nation.”
Corbiere said he won’t repeat comments he’s seen on social media or heard throughout the community, because “I don’t really care for racism,” but she said the situation is anything but “good.”
“Manitoulin has always been a neighbourhood community,” Corbiere said. “What we’re reading on social media, we need to address it as a whole. If we do this collectively, this issue will be resolved and we’ll reach some common ground with what we do in the future.”
Human rights lawyer Julien Falconer has been retained by the UCCM tribal council to provide legal advice in respect to crisis preparation for Manitoulin Island.
He said the tribal council is “reaching out to set a new tone,” and the answer to the unrest on Manitoulin Island isn’t not to call on the province to do the work.
“I was surprised to see a co-ordinated wasn’t already in place, and that Indigenous leadership were not formally included as part of the municipal association’s processes,” Falconer said.
“The worry should not be what’s happened already, but what’s coming, whether it’s the first wave or the second wave, and the fact there is no co-ordinated response in place right now is, quite frankly, shocking.
“What’s being offered is an olive branch designed to protect people. It’s a far cry from the kind of negativity, including the notion of calling in the province, that is being bandied about. This is a unique opportunity for all leadership on the Island to get behind this.”