Until the first speaker reached the podium, the protest to save the Ontario Ranger Program at Queen’s Park on January 4 seemed more like a high-school reunion than a community rally.
Approximately 100 people – many in standard issue yellow hard hats emblazoned with the Ministry of Natural Resources logo and covered in the signatures of their workmates who made up their summer family – stood on the lawn of Queen’s Park in the snow hugging and laughing, catching up with friends, singing camp songs, reliving inside jokes from their days in the bush and waving homemade placards, some taped to the side of a canoe portaged out for the occasion.
They were there to call on MNR Minister Michael Gravelle and Premier Dalton McGuinty to change their minds about cancelling the 68-year old Ontario Ranger Program.
Created in 1944 to recruit high-school age boys to assist in firefighting activities in the north because of a shortage of working age men, the program gradually expanded to offer thousands of 17-year old men and women the opportunity to work in northern Ontario all summer with similar kids from across the province clearing brush, maintaining portage trails and campsites, cleaning up rivers and more.
Between 1944 and 2012 when the program was scrapped in September in favour of a cheaper day-long program called the Stewardship Youth Ranger Program, more than 70,000 people had spent a summer in the bush, many opting to return for additional years as staff supervisors.
Marie LaForme was one of those rangers-turned-protesters who, at 17, left her home in Hamilton for an eight hour train ride to work with strangers all summer at Esker Lakes Provincial Park east of Timmins near the Quebec border. She likely didn’t know at the time how dramatically the program would change her life.
“It was my first summer away from home. It meant taking a risk to leave home,” she said, but coupled with the “nervousness of taking that risk [was] the excitement of doing it. I was forever changed after the program.”
LaForme said that 17 can be a challenging year for teenagers out of high school, but perhaps not ready for university yet.
“The [Ranger program] is a chance to step away from what your normal surroundings are and figure out who you are. Nobody knows who you are when you go there so you get to be whoever you want to be and become that person. I came back more confident in myself and my abilities, and it stuck with me through all these years,” she said, holding a sign with pictures and maps from her eight years at Esker Lakes.
The government claims that by cutting the program they will save an estimated $1.8 million annually as they attempt to shed $50 million from their ministry each year to help the province pay down a $14 billion deficit.
But the program is about more than youth development, and shutting it down ignores the real, economic benefits the Ranger program brings to northern communities, said rally organizer Emily Kerton.
“The loss of this program not only means the loss of this experience for the youth of today,” she told the crowd.
“It also means an economic loss for the small communities where the Ontario Ranger camps were based. No longer will the local people be employed as cooks at the camps. No longer will there be groceries bought at the local store or gas bought at the local stations.
“The amount of work that the Ontario Rangers accomplished each summer in these local communities was staggering,” she said, noting some northern communities relied heavily on the seasonal funds brought in by the program and its participants, and will now “struggle to continue to function.”
Ginny Pearce, a self-described “Ranger Mom” of daughter Rebecca who spent three years at Moose Lake Ranger Camp north of Minden, told me the issue is not the level of funding, but where that money comes from.
“I think [the program] belongs in a different ministry. We should move it to a more youth-oriented ministry like Child and Youth Services,” Pearce said.
She added there is room for compromise from both sides to keep the program operating, suggesting the government look at removing the stipend awarded to each participant at the end of each summer as a way of saving money.
“We can’t look back and save the program the way it was [but] let’s at least save the good things about it,” she said.
But Minister Gravelle appears resigned to shutting the Rangers down, telling the Toronto Star the decision was “tough” but necessary.
“This is not the most fun for me, to be the minister that had to make this decision,” he said.
It may not be too late for the Rangers. A change in Premier at the end of January could bring new cabinet ministers or a new direction for the government.
The Current Events blog covers a wide array of environmental issues from across the country and around the world, from politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science.
Andrew is a freelance environmental writer and reporter based in Toronto with a Masters in Geography from the University of Toronto. When he's not writing he's usually cycling around town, thinking about what to write next. Andrew's posts appear weekly on Thursdays. You can read more of Andrew's stuff at his own blog, The Reeves Report, or follow him on Twitter.
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