Everyone more or less did what they were supposed to in order to ensure that the Vankleek Hill Horse and Buggy Parade, organized by Excellent Events, would take place as usual after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the lack of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) presence at the parade meant that shortly after 1:30 p.m. (the parade start time was advertised as 1 p.m.), a truck containing two Vankleek Hill volunteer firefighters drove along the parade route to inform spectators that the parade would take place at the fairgrounds due to there being no OPP present at the event.

Samme Putzel, speaking on behalf of Excellent Events, said she had worked with Champlain Township ahead of time as part of its new event protocol policy and was told that everything had been taken care of. In fact, the township had provided a $500 grant to support the parade and had offered to pay the cost of off-duty police officers to be at the event. The police support is crucial at the main intersection of town, at Highway 34 and Main Street as Highway 34 is a connecting link and a busier highway, requiring permissions for temporary closure while any parade crosses that roadway.

But as the parade start-time got closer, and no OPP cruisers had shown up, she began making calls to the mayor, the fire chief and others. She finally had to make the call to hold the entire event at the Vankleek Hill fairgrounds, even though she considered proceeding without the OPP presence.

Champlain Township Mayor Normand Riopel acknowledged that the township had requested the police presence well in advance of the July 10 event, in order to ensure that all was in order and that the police had confirmed they would be there.

But unbeknownst to the township staff or to Putzel, things went off the rails on Friday, July 8, when an email was sent to Champlain Township Communications Special and Community Events coordinator Zoe Fortin, to advise her that the police would not, in the end, be able to provide a police presence at the Horse and Buggy Parade on Sunday, July 10. That email landed in Fortin’s email inbox while she was on holidays, and an away message was sent back to the Hawkesbury OPP. But a Canada-wide Rogers outage meant that no one saw that email come in; township staff had no access to emails or the internet all day Friday. Whether Fortin’s away message landed at the OPP end is unknown. That email advised that Fortin was away from her desk. What’s more, Fortin’s township email account was accessed only on Tuesday by another municipal employee and that is when the OPP email sent to Fortin was discovered.

“No one from the OPP called the township and we didn’t know the email cancelling the service had been sent to us,” says Champlain Township Mayor Normand Riopel, who says he doesn’t know any of the details about why the OPP had cancelled its services for the parade.

Putzel agrees that miscommunications were responsible for the lack of OPP presence, adding that she should have followed up to confirm but had been assured by the township that all had been taken care of.

In the course of organizing the event, Putzel says she also became aware of new restrictions when it comes to relying on support from the volunteer firefighters, who have been a big part of parades in past years.

Mayor Riopel confirmed that while volunteer firefighters can volunteer, they do so on their own time and such volunteer commitments have to be cleared with the full-time Champlain Fire Chief, Ghislain Pigeon. It’s all part of ensuring that there are sufficient firefighters on standby to fight fires and that vehicles are ready to go to a fire, Riopel says. Both the Vankleek Hill and L’Orignal volunteer firefighters became unionized within the past few years. Despite being called ‘volunteer’ firefighters, they are paid when they are sent on calls to fight fires, but nonetheless, the ‘volunteer’ portion likely comes into play as these non-full-time firefighters take turns being on standby alert.

“The L’Orignal firefighters kept their association but Vankleek Hill dissolved theirs,” Riopel stated, stating that the L’Orignal firefighters’ association collaborated with Champlain Township for recent Canada Day activities in L’Orignal at the municipal park. “That was a township event, so the township covered the insurance for those volunteers,” he noted. In other instances, insurance for firefighters who volunteer their time would have to be provided by the event organizer. “Firefighters can volunteer on their own time, but they are not acting on behalf of the township,” Riopel stated.

Putzel says she organized her own insurance for the Horse and Buggy Parade. She is hoping to do other events under the umbrella of Excellent Events and says that if this is the only parade she does this year, it will have cost $4,000 for insurance.

She believes that when volunteer firefighters are assisting at community events, they should be paid and insured by the municipality because they are providing a security service of sorts in the absence of OPP.

Riopel emphasized that the township is responsible for ensuring that there is fire protection in place at all times.

“I know in the past, fire trucks have been parked at the corner (of a street) during parades,” Riopel said. With reference to fire trucks being parked at the Vankleek Hill Fair demolition derby (as in the past), or actually taking part in parades, Riopel pointed out that if a fire truck was caught in traffic or could not respond to a call, the township would be held liable. This year, for example, the township will be sending its public works tanker truck to spray water on the field in front of the grandstand in preparation for the demolition derby. It won’t be the firefighters with their hoses and trucks doing that job this year.

“Just because things were done a certain way in the past doesn’t mean we can necessarily continue. We have to find a way to adjust,” Riopel said.

It can be complicated, Riopel acknowledged, adding that insurance and the worry of lawsuits are to blame.

Putzel maintains that the municipality has to “support the things we love” in the community, such as these events, as processes get more complicated.

The Review contacted the Hawkesbury OPP but had not received a call back as of press time on Tuesday, July 12.