Canadian News Apr 15, 2020 4:51 PM EST

Cottagers kicked out of Birch Island due to pandemic

Residents who are non-band members of Whitefish River First Nation have been given notice to vacate their homes within 24 hours.

Cottagers kicked out of Birch Island due to pandemic
Quinn Patrick Montreal, QC
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Residents who are non-band members of Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN), who lease cottages and homes along the shoreline property, have been given notice to vacate their homes within the next 24 hours. The entrance to the area from Old Village Road has been blockaded with large concrete blocks to prevent the return of summer residents, according to the Manitoulin Expositor.

The chief and council have updated the band's trespassing bylaw to address concerns about summer residents returning from places such as Florida and Toronto, both hotspots that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Ogimaa Shining Turtle denied that the orders to vacate were evictions because the leases of occupancy of those particular properties are not intended for year-round occupancy. “Over the years, people pushed the limits and started to stay longer,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle. “This is a process that is governed by our pandemic response and is in place to protect everyone.”

Many residents claim that they had been given the "okay," to live on those properties year-round, claiming that band members have been employed in the past for snow-removal so that residents could get in and out of their driveways. Many residents wish to remain anonymous for fear that they be not be allowed back but say there hadn't been any issues prior to the pandemic. Several of the non-band residents claim that these homes aren't cottages but rather their primary residence. They say they have no where else to go, especially within the 24 hours mandated by the vacate order.

Ogimaa Shining Turtle said that isn't the case, and challenged that far more notice had been given than what the residents are claiming. “We have a process,” he said. “Letters were sent out on March 18.”

The chief said that those who have been asked to vacate all have another residence. “It’s hard,” he said. “This wasn’t an easy decision to make. Everyone seems to have a reason why this shouldn’t apply to them. My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. They tell me ‘we are doing this for our children.’ Well, whose children do we govern for? I don’t know why cottagers feel they are exempt from the rule.”

Ogimaa Shining Turtle said there have been a number of difficult decisions that the band has had to make in response to the pandemic, “We cancelled Little NHL,” he said, an annual tournament that is cherished amongst the band. News of its cancellation received significant backlash from band members.

“We have no school, no community gatherings, we lost a beloved member of the community and I had to go to the family and explain to them that there would be no wake, no funeral, only 10 people,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle. “I was related to her and I couldn’t go. There are usually 90 to 100 people who attend the wake, I had to tell that grieving family ‘pick 10’.”

“There is no fishing, no smelting, no tobacco stores, no music, no events of any kind, it’s just a very long lists of no’s we have to maintain for the safety of our community,” said Ogimaa Shining Turtle. “We even cancelled Easter!”

“If I make exceptions for non-band members, what authority does that leave me to impose restrictions on our own community members?”

Another concern for band members of Whitefish River First Nation is the high volume of people who were coming all at once. “There were hundreds of people flocking in,” he said.

“I went down Old Village Road and there were dozens of cars at cottages where you wouldn’t see anyone for months yet,” he said. “There were people gathered around outdoor fires. I was talking to one group and another fire started up behind me. It was crazy.”

Ogimaa Shining Turtle said that the Whitefish River First Nation pandemic response was one of several phases, beginning with sign postage, then letters were mailed out to inform residents about what was going on and then finally, they brought in the barriers. However the barriers are only there as a precaution, said Ogimaa.

“I get it,” said Ogimaa. “People don’t want to be in Sudbury, Toronto or Hamilton while this is going on. But the question you have to ask yourself, ‘is this essential?’ Ogimaa says that none of the decisions they made were done out of malice, despite the speed at which everything was carried out.

“We didn’t get a chance to have public meetings, to consult everyone on what we do going forward, what do we do about cottagers,” he said. “There wasn’t the time for a lengthy debate to find the absolutely perfect solution.”

Ogimaa Shining Turtle said WRFN will try to assist those being vacated in finding an alternative place to stay for the time being if they don't have another residence.

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