Assabaska Ojibway Heritage Park/Lake of the Woods Provincial Park will undergo some significant changes in the next year as new ownership has been altering the way it looks and operates.
A park was given to the Onegaming and Big Grassy First Nations as part of the settlement of the Assabaska Shoreline Reserve issue that was hotly debated last July.
Since then, the two bands have been working with the Ministry of Natural Resources to make this a smooth transition year for the park.
“Technically, it’s still a provincial park, and as such, has to operate under the province’s regulations,” noted Clinton Belcher, managing director of Absolute Training, a Winnipeg-based company that’s been hired to train the park staff and manage the operation for this season.
“But it is run and owned by Onegaming and Big Grassy First Nations,” he added.
Belcher, along with Jason White and Michael Cameron, also from Absolute Training, have been working with two trainee managers from Onegaming and Big Grassy, with hopes the pair will take over running the park by the end of this season.
The park staff currently consists of Belcher, Cameron, White, two maintenance workers, a park office attendant, and a student employee.
“Ultimately, we would like a regular staff of about 10 people, particularly to provide opportunities to the nearby aboriginal communities,” White noted.
When referring to changes in how the staff interacts with the public, Belcher stressed they have put service as a top priority. It is not uncommon to see staff dropping by the campsites and asking people how their stay has been.
“They’re very obliging,” remarked Kathy Andrews, a camper from Thunder Bay who was staying at the park last week. “They come around and ask if there’s anything you want.”
As far as cosmetic changes there, the new management has given new paint jobs to all the park’s buildings and signs, replaced floor tiles in the washroom areas, and cut new areas of grass.
“We even have hot water in the showers, which, from what some regular campers tell me, is the first time in a long time,” White added.
The new management, working closely with Onegaming and Big Grassy, also has made effort to get some cultural programming tied into the camping experience.
Pow-wows, guided hikes, canoe tours, and evening campfire programs to promote an understanding of the Anishinaabe ways are all on tap for the near future.
“We’re trying to set up a convenience store that could sell crafts and artwork made by locals,” White said. “It would be nice to sell fresh-baked bannock and wild rice, as well . . . something more than pop and chips.”
Advertising and merchandise sales, another change from the park’s former policies, will help generate revenue normally not possible for a provincial park.
The option to rent camping sites on a seasonal basis, a practise not previously allowed by the ministry, is yet another change in policy there.
In this transitional period, the park’s success depends on the new management bridging the gap between the First Nations’ expectations and those of the MNR. But as Belcher put it, this is something they “have been able to do quite nicely.”
So far, the number of campers staying at the park is higher than it was last year, and White said the staff has received positive feedback from quite a few visitors.
“Our goal this year is to see that every single camper goes away telling others about the great camping experience they’ve had, and then comes back again next season to camp again,” he added.