Local federal and provincial politicians say a “serious response” to solving the longstanding issues with Couchiching First Nation is needed from government in the wake of the band’s announcement last week that it plans to put up a toll booth near the west end of the Noden Causeway starting May 21.
“I think this is an expression of frustration by Couchiching,” said Kenora-Rainy River MPP Howard Hampton, stressing the band has given the provincial and federal governments time to respond to the issues at hand.
The band council’s decision stems from longstanding issues over compensation for the land which Highway 11 was built upon and what it sees as a failure to take action on the contaminated soil at the former site of the J.A. Mathieu Sawmill dipping ponds—where six residences now sit.
Prior to putting up the toll booth, the band said there will be traffic slowdown to hand out pamphlets outlining the reason for their actions.
The band also plans to institute a fee to launch boats at the Five-Mile Dock, with proceeds raised going towards both social and economic development projects.
“I think the frustration is this. [Couchiching has] tried meeting with officials, they have tried going through all the official channels over and over again on these issues, and they just feel like they are not getting a response,” said Hampton, who vowed to do his best to try to get the province to respond to these issues.
“I think what has to happen is some of the ministers who have charge over some of these issues need to give a serious response.
“I think the First Nation needs to hear that the issues are going to be addressed and not just sit on the backburner for years because that’s what’s happened with some of these issues,” added Hampton.
“They’ve been on the backburner for years, and the community wants to see if there’s going to be a response.”
Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP John Rafferty hopes “cooler heads” will prevail when it comes to the planned toll booth.
“My overwhelming response to it is: let’s get something done with all the levels of government, and I think the town’s involved, too, so cooler heads can prevail,” he remarked.
“Because once a toll booth goes up, or even an information picket, there’s a danger that people on both sides will harden their views and it will be more difficult to come to a conclusion that benefits everyone in the region.”
When asked what needs to be done prior to May 21, Rafferty called for the province to “get into discussion mode” when it comes to issues of the highway.
“And quite frankly, we have to have some fast action from Health Canada on the rehabilitation of the old mill site,” he stressed.
“I’ve seen reports, I’ve seen a couple of different reports on the contamination, and quite frankly, I don’t know why we haven’t had any firm action yet.
“My initial reaction is: why are the provincial and federal governments so slow to reacting to these issues that, quite frankly, have been longstanding,” Rafferty added.
“Why are the wheels moving so slowly?”
Rafferty said he’s had the opportunity to “speak at some length” with Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl, and also will be speaking to federal Health minister Leona Aglukkaq over the issue.
“I’m quite sure that certainly Chuck Strahl is concerned about the situation, and I’ve asked that we all sit down and think about how these actions can be avoided because, quite frankly, it’s not good for anybody,” Rafferty stressed.
“It’s not good for First Nations, and certainly not good for people around here, even if you just look at something like tourism,” he remarked, noting the move comes at the beginning of tourism season—an industry that already has taken blows with border issues and soon the implementation of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).
Meanwhile, official statements from both the provincial and federal government touted discussion and dialogue when it comes to addressing the issues at hand.
“The Ontario government is committed to working with First Nations’ partners and in instances like this, our preferred approach is to enter into discussions and try to find a solution agreeable to all parties,” said Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson Greg Flood.
“We believe it’s important to settle disputes and concerns through positive discussion and proactive relationships,” he stressed.
A similar response came from Strahl’s office.
“Our government is committed to working with the Government of Ontario and the First Nation to resolve this,” said Strahl’s press secretary, Michelle Yao.
“But while the land issue is still in litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.
“I want to reiterate that our government believes that open dialogue is a much more constructive and effective way of resolving this issue, and we encourage all partners to work together to find a solution to this issue,” Yao added.
“In regards to the issue of [the] contaminated soil, I would like to emphasize that the health and safety of the residents of Couchiching First Nation is a priority of this government.
“INAC and Health Canada officials continue to work with the community to address health issues,” she noted.
The OPP has declined to comment on the situation to date.
Meanwhile, Hampton believes the public should take a “wait-and-see” approach to the toll booth issue.
“[Couchiching], if they were all set to put up a toll booth, they would have announced the toll booth one day and put it up the next,” he said.
“The fact [is] they’ve allowed a fair amount of time here for both the federal and provincial governments to come to grips with some of the issues and respond to some of the issues,” he reasoned.
“If somebody says, ‘If we don’t hear from the different levels of government, we’re going to have to do something in three weeks or a month from now,’ what they’re really saying is: we’re giving you some time to think about these issues and respond on them, and that’s really what’s happening here,” Hampton added.
“And I’m hopeful that at least on some of these issues, the First Nations will get a serious response from both the federal and provincial government.”