Council grills OPP on toll booth

Duane Hicks

With the Couchiching toll booth at the forefront of many residents’ minds, Fort Frances council served up a slew of questions for OPP detachment commander Insp. John Kendrick at last night’s meeting.
“Our highway’s been blockaded on the reserve since May 21,” said Coun. Ken Perry. “It’s an illegal act, and I’d like to know what the OPP plan on doing about it to correct the problem?”
Insp. Kendrick replied the OPP wants to maintain the peace and protect the public. Any complaints that are received will be investigated, with follow-up and appropriate response taken sometime afterwards.
“Our goal right now is to keep the highway open, to protect the peace,” he stressed. “And anything that occurs after that will be a measured response.”
Coun, Andrew Hallikas asked what advice could Insp. Kendrick give to motorists approaching the toll booth.
Because it is an obstruction on the highway, motorists should slow down and proceed with caution, he answered.
“As people approach the toll booth, they have to make a personal decision,” Insp. Kendrick added. “It’s an individual, personal decision whether or not to pay the toll.
“The OPP can’t comment on what action will be taken or provide advice further on a matter that is being dealt with at higher levels of government.
“It’s a continuous, ongoing thing at the present time.”
“Really, who is calling the shots? Who is making the decision as to how the OPP will react to various circumstances that could occur at that toll booth?” wondered Coun. Hallikas.
“Ultimately, for the OPP, Commissioner Julian Fantino will make the decision about how we react, and that will be based on his conversation with other provincial parties, other provincial agencies,” said Insp. Kendrick.
“They’re working actively now to address a problem, and we’re asking the public’s patience while this dialogue goes on,” he added, noting the situation is “something new” and the OPP wants to make sure its response is “measured and correct.”
Coun. Sharon Tibbs asked if the toll booth is an “illegal action,” to which Insp. Kendrick replied, “It’s a complex issue.”
“It deals with jurisdictional issues, land claim issues, who owns what portion of highway,” he explained, adding the OPP has been active in keeping open lines of communication with Couchiching First Nation, as well as meeting with community leaders to try to get out the message that the situation is going to take time before it’s resolved.
“We understand that the public is very frustrated, as are the police, but it’s a process that has to take place, and we want to do it safely,” Insp. Kendrick stressed.
“The public safety is the main thing.”
Coun. Tibbs said many people are unclear as to whether they should pay the $1 toll, and they should know it’s an individual decision.
“You can talk about it being a personal decision you make on your own,” she remarked. “However, what is happening here is an illegal action in process, and regardless of how we’re going to carry on to get this thing solved, the bottom line is people are feeling intimidated into doing that—they feel obligated to do that—and I don’t think they should be feeling that way.
“It should be clearly stated to the public they are not required to make that payment if they choose not to. It’s an individual decision,” Coun. Tibbs continued.
“Are we being policed by the police or policed by the government in this issue?” asked Mayor Roy Avis.
“The term they use is a measured response. What can be done at the present time is being done,” replied Insp. Kendrick, noting that until the government leaders come together and decide which route they want to take, the only thing the OPP can do is protect the public and keep the peace to the best of its ability.
“A lot of people who live in the municipality and the district feel really let down by the OPP on this issue,” said Mayor Avis. “That’s why I asked that question.
“Because if your hands are tied, and it’s the government that’s making the response, the criticism is going to the wrong spot.”
“Like any other contentious issue, when people don’t know what to do, people turn to the police for answers,” acknowledged Insp. Kendrick.
“And when the answers they’re getting from the police are very structured, which they are in this case because we’re trying to keep everything calm, they don’t get a very good feeling that they’re being well-represented,” he admitted.
“But I can assure you there are many, many police officers around doing many, many different things in order to keep what has occurred over the past several days in the status it currently is,” he stressed, noting the OPP will continue to ensure the highway remains open and the public safe until a decision is reached and the OPP will take the necessary actions.