Lake of the Woods Provincial Park, though soon to be known as Assabaska Ojibway Heritage Park, will remain in the provincial park system for one more summer pending the final settlement of the Assabaska land issue sometime in November.
That settlement will see the deregulation of the mainland portion of the park and enable the transfer of those lands to Canada to constitute a reserve for the Assabaska First Nations of Big Grassy River and the Ojibways of Onegaming.
But even though basic park services and public access to areas within the park will remain unchanged for this camping season, the two First Nations will begin to play an active role there in terms of park management.
Their incorporation into the park’s administration is the first stepping stone to the implementation of a 10-year business plan the two First Nations believe will ensure its economic viability once the land transfer is completed.
“We’re forging ahead,” enthused Vernon Tuesday, Big Grassy’s economic development officer and one of five members of the Assabaska transition team.
“All services will remain the same under provincial regulation this summer but we will have a lot of involvement,” he added.
“We’re really happy to have a chance to do that,” echoed Glen Archie, land claim director for Big Grassy.
Archie, along with Gus Copenace and Ron Jack of Onegaming and Ontario Parks superintendent Paul Siran, round out the transition team.
“[The province] will help us run it so that we can get our hands and feet wet so to speak,” said Archie.
The co-management process already has begun with the hiring and training of some First Nations people to fill job positions within the park.
Siran is expecting everything to go smoothly but said he will be paying particular attention to the park’s upkeep.
“It will be operating in partnership, and part of the job is to ensure the park is operating as it has in the past,” he said Friday from his Kenora office.
“We want to see [First Nations] on their feet but we require certain standards to be met—the same as all provincial parks,” he stressed.
Those standards include operating hours, cleanliness, security, and maintenance of park facilities and grounds.
But he also said he was confident the First Nations would maintain those standards once the park was transferred out of the province’s hands in the fall.
“When it’s deregulated, they will have to maintain some of those standards and I expect their mandate will include that they [do so],” he reasoned.
In keeping with their business plan to make the park economically viable, Big Grassy and Onegaming are planning a few new strategies. These include setting up a convenience and gift store inside the main gatehouse, and erecting wigwams in Aspen campground for use by campers.
The introduction of mini pow-wows and traditional food feasts also are being considered.
“Our main objective is to increase visitation in the park and eventually make some money,” said Tuesday.
On a related note, Siran said there are no plans to close or modify the provincial park at Caliper Lake, located on Highway 71 just south of Nestor Falls.
He said it has proven to be an increasingly popular spot, especially since “Ontario Parks” took advertising of provincial parks to a new level in the past few years.
But that doesn’t mean it and other parks will be out of the financial “woods” anytime soon.
“Like most government programs right now, there aren’t the same allocations of funds to work with. We will continue to struggle,” said Siran.
“But now [parks] can retain revenue from the sale of permits and use these monies to run them,” he added. “And provincial parks are enjoyed and I can’t see them being taken away from the people of Ontario.”