Politicians hoping to bring all parties together on bridge issue

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

Political representatives of the Rainy River District would like to see all parties come together to come to a better solution for residents over the current increase set to go into effect next week for commuters paying at the toll booth and in January for those buying bridge cards.

In Monday night’s Fort Frances Town Council meeting Mayor Andrew Hallikas brought forward a notice of motion that he intends to introduce at the November 7 council meeting. That motion would be for the town to call on the council to engage with the federal government to become involved in a purchase of the bridge from Aazhogan LP, the current owners of the bridge, a partnership between BMI Group and Rainy River First Nations.

In an interview last Friday, Hallikas said he’s heard the message that residents are not impressed with the announced increases.

“I think it’s pretty patently obvious that the residents of Fort Frances are quite upset with the fact that the bridge tolls have increased so suddenly and so drastically,” Hallikas. “I’ll add that one of the first things I did when I heard about this was to contact Mayor Droba of International Falls to see what the temperature was over there, and it was similar to here because both of our communities are intertwined. We have people with friends and relatives on both sides of the border and both need to travel back and forth. There have been a variety of feelings, some people were quite vociferous and quite extreme in their feelings, others were more patient and rational, but overall, everybody was upset and opposed.”

Hallikas has been in touch with Thunder Bay-Rainy River Member of Parliament Marcus Powlowski, who is also receiving feedback through his constituency office in Fort Frances.

“I certainly realize the importance of that connection and being able to affordably go back and forth across the bridge,” Powlowski said. “I know that on both sides of the border they’re fairly isolated communities and there are a lot of services that are perhaps on the other side of the border, people may want to go over for entertainment. I’ve heard of people who have joint custody where one parent’s on one side of the border and the other’s on the other side, kids playing hockey on the other side, people going to work on the other side etc.”

There is only one other privately owned and maintained bridge that crosses from Canada into the USA.

“I was reading an article about the Ambassador Bridge, which goes from Windsor over to Detroit,” Powlowski said. “That’s the only other private international bridge in Canada. When that was built back in the 20s there were a number of other private international bridges. However, in the intervening years they’ve kind of ceased to exist, I think for good reason. There are some pretty fundamental problems with leaving it to private corporations to manage something which is essentially in the public interest.”

In that vein, the Federal government is fully footing the bill for the new Gordie Howe Bridge which will take traffic away from the Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador Bridge is 2.3 km and charges tolls in both directions. $7 USD to cross from the USA into Canada and $9.25 CAD to cross from Canada into the USA for private passenger vehicles. Tolls will be collected on the Gordie Howe Bridge on the Canadian side to help recoup the cost of construction. As the Gordie Howe Bridge has yet to open there are no set tolls at this time.

Powlowski also mentioned that the International Bridge and Tunnels Act does allow the government to affect tolls that can be charged. However that may not be enforceable as tolls are collected on the American side of the Fort Frances-International Falls Bridge.

Powlowski says he’s spoken to federal Transportation Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

“I think personally, and I’ve said to the minister (of Transportation), that I advocate for the government buying the bridge, or building a new bridge which would probably mean compensating the owners of the existing bridge if they build a new one,” Powlowski said. “I had quite a lengthy conversation with Pablo Rodriguez, the Minister of Transport. It was very good. He wanted to know all the details about the bridge and who owns it, and whether there were railway tracks on the bridge and whether it was on top of the dam etc. He seemed quite interested in the whole problem and transport is looking into what options there are.”

While the international bridge does fall under federal jurisdiction, Hallikas has also been in touch with Kenora-Rainy River Member of Provincial Parliament Greg Rickford.

On Friday Rickford and Hallikas issued a joint statement:

“As Canadians grapple with the high cost of living, families and individuals across the Northwest should not face increased costs when crossing international borders for work, commerce, and leisure. While international bridge tolls fall exclusively under the jurisdiction of the federal government, we all need to be part of the solution. This is why we are calling on regional leadership, on both sides of the border, and at all levels of government, to come together to discuss a path forward.”

Rickford has expressed wanting to help get the relevant parties together to discuss the issue.

“We’ve watched this go viral on social media and I’ve read some very thoughtful interventions on both sides,” Rickford said. “I think they deserve to be put on the table. Typically that’s how I do my business. There’s always two if not more sides to a story and getting that out there and getting it understood is important.”

Rickford says he’d want to discuss how things got to the place they’re at right now and how to best resolve the issue in the short and long terms. He said he hopes the federal representative (Powlowski) can impress upon the government, and cabinet that they need to be engaged on this issue.”

In his address to council on Tuesday Hallikas thanked Rainy River First Nations Chief and Aazhogan President Marcel Medicine-Horton for their willingness to support the bridge purchase when no one seemed interested in keeping the bridge open.

“Rainy River First Nations is the entity that stepped up along with the BMI group to buy the bridge and maintain the bridge to ensure that that critical and strategic resource remained viable,” Hallikas said. “That was a good thing because the federal government was not stepping up. So I think that it’s essential that in any discussions by the government to purchase the bridge, the government negotiates a fair settlement with the Aazhogan Corporation so that they are made whole.”

Hallikas also said that while the issue of the tolls may be divisive, discourse should remain respectful.

“The one other thing I did want to mention is when I was talking to Chief Horton, it saddened me and it disappointed me when he told me that some residents of our community had expressed their displeasure with the increase of tolls by resorting to racist and hurtful remarks” He said. “I completely support freedom of expression and open discussion. Everybody needs to talk about what they feel, what they believe, but it should be a civil discussion, and racist remarks and comments are inappropriate and should never enter into it.”

In a statement from Aazhogan, Medicine-Horton says they are open to further dialogue.

“Aazhogan is open to continuing conversations with all levels of government. We have already had a number of conversations at various times, and with various representatives of government. We would welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue with everyone at the same table working towards a meaningful longterm solution for the local community”