In Our Words: Travel restrictions could be useful - if they're actually enforced

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?

That is a classic condundrum posed by some of our finest modern thinkers – Albert Einstein, George Berkeley, even Bruce Cockburn. If someone isn’t around to witness something, did it happen?

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When I saw northern Manitoba travel restrictions were going back into place, that sentence was the first thing that came to mind.

I fear the restrictions will not be useful. The number of loopholes, bypasses and clauses in the existing public health order,, along with an inability to enforce them, will make them the same as they were the first time around – toothless at best, wasteful at worst.

In Manitoba, the restrictions come into effect at the 53rd parallel. There are only two provincial highways that run north of that barrier – Highway 6 and Highway 10. The parallel comes into effect just barely north of the junction between Highway 6 and Highway 60, the Easterville road. Most of Highway 60 goes over that line. On Highway 10, the 53rd parallel is approximately at Dawson Bay, between Mafeking and Overflowing River.

If the province was serious about this order, they would place checkpoints at these locations to enforce it, right? Sounds easy enough.

Um... about that.

If someone really needs to get up to northern Manitoba, they could dodge a hypothetical roadblock by crossing the Saskatchewan border and coming in from the west. Travel between Manitoba and western provinces is still open, remember.

It would be just like the time the Saskatchewan government set up a checkpoint at Smeaton to supposedly keep non-essential traffic out of our patch of the north – apparently not knowing that any John Q. Public could simply either drive north on a grid road or head to Candle Lake and cut across to get on Highway 106, completely and legally bypassing the checkpoint.

But that, of course, won’t be a problem if this travel restriction is like the first one. There aren’t going to be checkpoints. Who’s going to staff them? Saskatchewan used conservation officers and wildland firefighters to staff their checkpoints, but fire crews will soon get their seasonal layoff letters and conservation officers aren’t plentiful and have better things to do.

So do local RCMP officers, who, if they were to received the call here, would presumably come from the nearest detachments to the 53rd parallel sites – Grand Rapids and Swan River – and be pulled as much as an hour out of their way to stop cars. That’s not a wise use of resources.

Both areas have nearby First Nations that may have their own security services, but those services have typically been used to operate checkpoints near their own home communities. Double shifts? Nah.

I'm afraid it looks like this health order will be more or less unenforced.

Even if someone, by pure chance, gets pulled over, the list of exceptions is a mile long.

If you say you’re coming north to camp, you’re good. If you say you’re coming north to work in an essential industry (which includes mining, forestry and writing for a newspaper), you’re good. If you say you’re coming north to work for the provincial or federal government or for a Crown corporation, including Manitoba Hydrom you’re good. If you say you’re coming north as a northern resident who travelled down south and is coming home, you’re good. If you say you’re coming north for medical treatment (though I don’t know who does that), you’re good. If you say you’re coming north because you own a business up here, you’re good.

Notice the start of those sentences – if you say. You don’t necessarily have to be telling the truth – you just have to say it. Even in the unlikely chance you get caught, who’s going to check your story?

If you have a rule and someone wants to break it, nobody’s around to enforce it, nobody who could enforce it has the time and there’s almost no chance they’ll be punished for breaking it, won’t they break it?

Let’s be real here. The northern travel restriction will do nothing. It never did anything in the first place. We already have American campers and fishers up here that somehow were able to get their trucks, boats and campers across our supposedly shuttered Canada-U.S. border.

The order is a good way to provide peace of mind to people who are scared of COVID-19. That’s not nothing, don’t get me wrong, but putting in place sweeping movement restrictions on people doesn’t seem like a smart idea.

If the province really cared about keeping northerners (and other Manitobans) safe, it would ensure nobody, aside from essential workers, would be able to leave COVID-19 hotbeds like Brandon and some parts of Winnipeg without a mask, a negative test, a temperature check and any possible further checks. These are the places where COVID-19 is at it worst right now, after all.

I hope northern residents will continue to avoid unnecessary travel, especially to COVID-19 hotspots. That’s the one anti-COVID-19 measure most of us have stuck to, with maybe an exception or two this summer. I know there are two COVID-19 cases in our region – hopefully, our numbers stay at two, the people affected heal with no ill effects and we can continue on more or less as normal.

It’s not northerners I’m worried about. It’s people from areas where COVID-19 has spread in the community, setting aside legitimate public health concerns because they just have to go fishing again before it snows.

I can only hope that the First Nations checkpoints hold fast, that any southern residents with a bad cough stay home and that this recent COVID-19 case, if it turns out to be in Flin Flon, is like our first case and burns out without community transmission.

The tree might fall, but nobody's going to do anything about it, nobody’s going to be around if it drops and nobody in charge will care. It's up to ourselves now to keep each other safe.

 

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