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Communities rally to fight wind projects on Manitoulin

“We are standing with our neighbours.” This simple but powerful statement was made to the Council of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands (NEMI) by Wikwemikong elder Rosemary Wakegijig as she handed over a petition with 658 names showing their opposition to industrial wind turbines on “Great Spirit Island.”

According to Wakegijig, last week the same elders and youth have convinced the Wikwemikong Band Council to stop/remove any further industrial turbine development from the community’s work plan. They will continue with their renewable energy plans but industrial turbines are out.

It was a powerful and genuine presentation by Wakegijig as she listed the concerns under the heading of, “We the Native People that are in opposition to the wind farm development have the following concerns: destruction of wildlife habitats, many acres of forest destroyed in construction of such projects, high risk of brush fires, to mention a few.”

She also told council, “We hold Mnidoo Minis (Manitoulin Island) the Island of the Creator as sacred place that needs to be protected. We will not stand by and watch mother earth getting raped.”

And then finished with, “Be very suspicious of individuals offering riches and wealth along with a jar of snake oil and a bottle or two of firewater, in this case money.”

Mayor Joe Chapman thanked Wakegijig for giving their side of the issue, and as he accepted the petition he said, “I know some here do not agree, but I stand with you.”

There was no vote on the request by the group to support their opposition to the turbines, but Chapman indicated that would happen at a later date.

As the group filed out of the room, three young men from Wikemikong – Leroy Eshkawkogan, Nimkeehns Wemigwans and Chris Johnson – drummed and sang a healing song for “Spirit Island” with the drum beats representing the heart beat of Mother Earth.

It was an emotionally charged moment.

Driving home from the meeting, I reflected on just who are making the decisions on NEMI council concerning the McLean’s Mountain project.

Although the Liberals’ Green Energy Act takes away the rights of municipalities concerning the placing and siting of turbines, this council is not one of the 80 that has asked for a moratorium.

As a matter of fact, for the most part, they have supported every move that Northland Power has made.

When Chapman took the mayor’s seat from Jim Stringer, the power company lost a huge public supporter of the project. Now, NEMI has Chapman, who will also be running as Conservative candidate in the upcoming provincial election in October.

Then there are the counicllors. Let’s see: Mike Erskine, who has a history on the executive of the local Liberal party; Bruce Woods, who is a farmer with leased land to the power company, but don’t worry, he always declares the conflict; Al McNevin, who seems to take digs at Chapman about the Conservative platform every chance he gets, and that’s just four of them.

Oh, I would be remiss not to mention Bill Koehler and Christina Jones who tend to vote against the project. Am I suggesting there is anything wrong in the way any of them vote? No. It is fascinating, however , to look at this group as kind of a microcosm of the community and of course the cynic in me can’t ignore the bigger political connections which manifest themselves with this council.

I have never made a secret of my concerns about industrial turbines on Manitoulin. Speaking with Wakegijig following the meeting, I was heartened by the passion she has for this issue. She made it clear she researched the pros and cons of turbines and she does not believe they have a place on Manitoulin.

But I think what encourages me the most is the determination of her group to join and stand with non-First Nations people who are against the industrial turbines. They recognize the damage that industrial turbines could have on an Island as biodiverse as Manitoulin.

A study called Islands of Life: A Biodiversity and Conservation Atlas of the Great Lakes, was released this year by the United States Conservancy, its Canadian counterpart, along with the Ministry of Natural Resources, and other groups. Manitoulin was divided into two areas due to the difference in various plant life. According to their findings, Manitoulin North is the most threatened of all the Great Lakes Islands and the south part is the sixth most threatened.

I don’t think building roads, putting up power lines and pouring massive amounts of concrete for just one turbine will actually protect that biodiversity. The elders have said it is their job to protect Great Spirit Island and I appreciate their dedication to this place we all call home.

For all of the conflict these projects have created in communities, I find it amazing that both cultures on the Island are coming together over this issue.

As Wakegijig says, “this is only the beginning.”

Ruth Farquhar is a freelance writer based on Manitoulin Island.