The community of Washagamis Bay First Nation and members of the South End Roads Association are at an impasse.
SERA members are upset that they haven’t had road access to and from their homes for over a year now, after Washagamis Bay used boulders to block a portion of Mckenzie Portage Road last summer.
They say the ongoing blockade has created a ‘health crisis’ for about 114 families living south of the reserve, who now have to rely on ice roads and boats to access hospitals, pharmacies, and more.
“The WBFN Chief and Council has shown indifference to the fear and stress in our community. For a year we have texted, emailed, called and written asking to talk, without any response,” says Rico Bertschinger, President of SERA.
“Many of our permanent residents are our elders, people who have made their homes here, built their retirement and lives around this beautiful lake and land. The ice road is no longer stable, and boats cannot travel yet. These residents are trapped until the water opens up.”
Q104 and KenoraOnline has reached out to Washagamis Bay First Nation, Chief Marilyn Sinclair and the community’s legal counsel for more information on the blockade, which has been in effect since April, 2020.
When it was erected, the community stated the blockade aimed to reduce the risk that COVID-19 could be spread to community members, permanent Ontario residents would have access to the road each Thursday afternoon, essential workers would be granted a pass to allow access, emergency vehicles would be allowed through, and it would only be a temporary measure.
As well, only about 10 of those property owners are considered permanent residents, many members are from Manitoba and the Winnipeg area who use their properties as summer homes creating additional COVID-19 risks, and roughly 200 cottagers who lease land in the area south of Washagamis Bay are still allowed to use the roadway.
Now, with the blockade still in effect and no communication from the community over a year later, SERA says Washagamis Bay First Nation’s actions have ended over 30 years of written, legal contracts that had built and maintained the road for both communities.
“We’ve put in countless hours of volunteer time to maintain and improve the road. We thought we had a positive working relationship with the [community], until the current Chief and Council were elected,” said SERA member Nancy Salmijarvi, who lead a virtual presentation on the issue on April 20.
“Our ice-out so far has been 48 days. We are cut-off from the things that most people take for granted. All of us here are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but we can’t get to the vaccination site. There’s no way for our elders to get to and from our homes,” adds Salmijarvi.
As of April 20, SERA says they’ve reached out to Kenora-Rainy River MPP and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Kenora MP Eric Melillo, who all reportedly supported the community’s decision to block the road.
However, SERA residents did meet with members of Washagamis Bay in September of 2019, 8 months prior to the blockade, and were advised the road could be closed to cottagers due to ongoing speeding and traffic concerns. The community also refunded residents' 2020 road access fees.
“They were upset by some...unprofessional driving, some speeding and some traffic issues” admitted Salmijarvi, during the presentation.
“But those are things in the past. We want to correct our mistakes, correct the disrespectful things we may have done and move forward in a respectful way, in a way that we are operating as neighbours. We want to say we’re sorry, and go from there.”
She stressed SERA has introduced an in-house by-law to curb dangerous driving in their members, and she was not aware of claims made by another reporter that SERA members had damaged or desecrated any grave-sites in the Washagamis Bay community.
SERA’s presentation included a story from Wayne Warkentin. On March 30, he travelled 18 kilometres by quad on a thin stretch of ice to the highway, as he hoped to make his way to a doctor’s appointment in Thunder Bay after feeling sick for the past couple of weeks.
But by the time Warkentin reached the ice road landing, his condition had deteriorated to the point where he had to be flown by emergency air ambulance to Thunder Bay and have emergency surgery to put a pacemaker in his chest. He says it was toughest on his wife, who was forced to stay home.
“I ended up in the Kenora hospital’s intensive care unit with a heart failure. I’m just thankful I had good doctors,” explained Warkentin. “But if that happened two days later, we would have been stuck with no way out of here. It’s hard to say what would have happened.”
SERA notes one of their members passed away after a stroke last summer, as the victim had to be transported by boat to the Lake of the Woods District Hospital, and unfortunately, didn’t make it in time.
Although Salmijarvi notes those 114 property owners do have access to a helicopter pad for medical emergencies, she says it can be difficult to rely on the service due to fluctuating weather conditions over the winter months, and the availability of Ornge air ambulance staff.
“We’re concerned and scared for ourselves, our family and for the other families out here,” adds Warkentin. “We just want the First Nation to sit and talk with us and give us the chance to come to an agreement so that we can all feel safe out here. We didn’t buy an island. We bought a home with road access. That’s all we’re asking for. Please, we just want to talk.”
“We understand that using the road through the community is a privilege, perhaps one that has been taken for granted for some time,” adds Salmijarvi. “We wish to be respectful, recognize our neighbour's treaty rights, and to find a solution that is beneficial to both parties.”
SERA notes their 114 members are between the ages of 60 and 82, and some have had to move and stay with family during this time due to a lack of road access.