With Couchiching First Nation having been assured by senior government that their concerns over contaminated soil will be dealt with, and there will be negotiations regarding the Highway 11 corridor running through its territory, the band on Monday night took down the controversial toll booth it had erected on Highway 11 just west of the Noden Causeway.
“Our community is claiming victory,” Chief Chuck McPherson said in a press release issued by the band yesterday.
“We have received a commitment to relocate eight home owners from contaminated lands to newly-serviced lots on our reserve, and also a commitment to negotiate suitable compensation for the highway claim,” he noted.
“I am happy that no one has gotten hurt and that our community has done the removal of the toll booth very peacefully,” said Coun. Ed Yerxa, who was a fixture at the toll booth site during the 11 days it was up.
“Community members have been on a constant watch of the toll booth since threats were made against the toll booth, our community, and the toll booth operators,” he added.
Many of the toll booth operators were young men and women from the community who strictly followed instructions not to engage in debates with passing motorists or force those unwilling to support the toll booth initiative to pay the $1 toll, the band said.
“We don’t recommend this as anything but a last resort for First Nations,” said Coun. Sara Mainville.
“Our members have been ostracized by our neighbours in the Town of Fort Frances, there were incidents of blatant racism and overt hostility towards our cause,” she noted.
“But there is 132 feet on that highway that is legally ours and it was our strong belief that only direct action would bring the federal government to the table in a real way,” Coun. Mainville stressed.
“Despite receiving strong assurances to deal with the highway, we were most pleased with [federal Indian and Northern Affairs minister Chuck] Strahl’s firm commitment to move the home owners now residing on contaminated lands,” she added.
With the toll booth initiative now a part of the area’s history, the band said it is time to move towards efforts to deal honourably with land claims.
“We joked at a recent community meeting that the next action is regarding Pither’s Point Park,” said Coun. Mainville.
“I don’t think you’ll find a more united First Nation community than Couchiching at this point in our history—taking away the toll booth is not going to change that,” she vowed.
Couchiching members voluntarily removed the toll booth just before 9 p.m. on Monday
The band said a $1 toll had been collected from more than 14,000 vehicles travelling the highway since the booth was first put up in the late afternoon of May 21.
The band had vowed the booth would stay up until the federal and provincial governments adequately addressed compensation for the land Highway 11 sits upon as well as the identified contaminated soil at the former J.A. Mathieu sawmill site.
Meanwhile, Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis said yesterday he was glad to see the toll booth come down.
“I am very happy to see Couchiching’s removed the toll booth,” he remarked. “It was a deterrent to positive relationships between the two communities.
“I hope our provincial and federal governments realize the overall problems [the toll booth] has created for the citizens in our municipality,” added Mayor Avis.
“Going forward, I hope they recognize the situation with Couchiching’s problems and try to work in a positive manner to resolve them.”
Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP John Rafferty said yesterday he welcomed the agreement between the federal government and the band leadership.
“I was very happy to hear [Tuesday] morning that an agreement was reached between the Government of Canada and the leadership of the Couchiching First Nation to resolve a serious public health hazard on the reserve and end the [10-day] long toll booth protest on Highway 11,” he noted in a press release.
“Through no fault of their own, several families on the Couchiching reserve found themselves living on land that was contaminated with dioxins and other toxic substances,” Rafferty said.
“Though it took somewhat longer than I would have hoped, I am satisfied that the federal government has done the right thing by assisting those families with their relocation efforts.
“I also welcome the responsible decision taken by the Couchiching First Nation leadership to dismantle their Highway 11 toll booth once an agreement on this issue was reached,” added Rafferty.
“I’ve always believed that respectful dialogue is the most effective way to resolve long-standing issues between groups, and I sincerely hope that this agreement is the start of a new approach to dispute resolution for both the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the leadership of the Couchiching First Nation.”
The OPP said it maintained open lines of communication and a good working relationship with the Couchiching chief and council during the time the toll booth was up, and liaison officers will continue to communicate with all parties on this and other matters.
Officers will continue to monitor the area.
The OPP also thanked motorists for their patience during the period when traffic flow was delayed.