Couchiching First Nation put up their controversial toll booth late this afternoon at the west end of the Noden Causeway on Highway. #11.
While originally set to go up at noon, delays meant that the booth wasn’t set up until almost 4 p.m. with Couchiching Chief Chuck McPherson, alongside Coun. Dan Mainville the first to step into the booth to collect the first tolls.
The first cars to go through who paid were met with applause from the dozens of Couchiching community members who lined the side of the road . Other vehicles chose to drive through, refusing to pay a cent.
Letters were given out to those in the passing vehicles to mail along to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister,Chuck Strahl. The letters urged action on the issues which are the motivation behind the band’s decision to put up the toll booth—contaminated soil, and compensation for the land Highway #11 sits upon.
Following the band’s action, individual O.P.P. vehicles drove past the toll booth at various intervals and then at approximately 6:15 p.m, uniformed officers parked off of the highway and proceeded on foot to speak with members of the public who were present.
O.P.P. officers handed out notices to participants directing them to “discontinue [their] interference with traffic and disperse immediately,” as well as took the names of those people who willingly gave them.
The hand-out read: “The public has a legal right to free and uninhibited passage on highways in the Province of Ontario. Your actions constitute a deliberate interference with traffic on this thoroughfare, which is illegal and cannot be permitted. Criminal charges may result if this activity continues.”
Listed as possible charges the police might lay included: Obstructing police, breach of peace, causing a disturbance, mischief, intimidation, refuse to accompany a police officer off a highway prohibited to pedestrians.
“These offences are punishable upon conviction by fine and/or imprisonment. Additionally, the Highway Traffic Act authorizes for the towing and impounding of your vehicle under these circumstances.”
Following this, O.P.P. officers dispersed from the area.
Despite the legal consequences, many band members remained at the site, awaiting to take their turn in the booth.
“I was nervous but I was also excited, so it was a combination of the two,” Coun. Sarah Mainville said about her feelings as the community put up the toll booth.
“The nervousness is because of the safety issues. I wanted to make sure logistically that it seemed safe and when I saw the first truck go through I was happy to see that it went through safely,” she added.
For many members, standing in the toll booth is going to be a source of pride, a way to give back to the community, said Mainville, although she did recognize how the toll booth is controversial to some people.
“I don’t think it’s hardship on each individual going by. Most of us carry spare change in our vehicles and its just a matter of putting your spare change together and supporting what we’re trying to do,” she added.
“We’re still in discussions with government, Ontario and Canada,” Mainville noted, “And [the toll booth] seems to be working, and it seems to be working peacefully. But there’s still safety issues.”
“The best solution is for the three governments, the First Nation government, the Canadian government, the provincial government and work through these issues together,” she said.
Earlier this morning, Chief Chuck McPherson and Coun. Dan Mainville were in discussion with the province in Winnipeg concerning compensation for the land which Hwy. #11 was built on.
This offer included some cash and unspecified economic development opportunities, stated Chief McPherson early in the afternoon at a press conference before the toll booth went in. The council will be considering the proposal, but Chief McPherson also stated that the community wants something on an annualized basis—and right now the province is not prepared to go there.
Meanwhile, when it comes to a federal response Couchiching First Nation leadership said that as of this evening Chuck Strahl finally did contact them for the second time since they announced plans for the toll booth—the first time being this morning, when he phoned to say he was in transit and would speak with them at 5 p.m. today.
From this 5 p.m. conversation, Strahl has promised “no more studies and no more testing,” said Coun. Christine Jourdain, when it comes to the contaminated grounds which six residences are located on.
Strahl has also promised to “come down and come to a resolution about what’s supposed to happen with these affected residents,” noted Jourdain.
“I even teased him and said I had a home for him to live in,” she said, referencing one of the family homes at the contaminated site whose residences have relocated into town instead of risking living there.
“[Strahl] says he can’t promise this upcoming week because their cabinet is sitting, but as soon as he’s available he’ll let us know and come visit us.”
But for now, the toll booth stands.
The toll is $1 each way for passenger vehicles and $10 for commercial ones, with monthly passes also to be available for $25 and $100, respectively.