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125 years of Ontario provincial parks

James Morgan

Ontario is celebrating some of its most treasured outdoor places. It is the 125th anniversary of the provincial park system.

The first and still most popular park, Algonquin, was established in 1893. There were only eight provincial parks until the 1950s, but the surge in demand for outdoor recreation and greater concern for environmental preservation led to the provincial government establishing hundreds of parks over the past 65 years.

There are now 340 provincial parks in Ontario, covering eight percent of the province’s land and water. The total amount of provincial parkland in Ontario is the same size as the entire province of Nova Scotia.

Some parks are small and offer just a place to have a picnic or break on a long road trip. Others are very remote and it is possible to spend days or weeks in them experiencing the wilderness.

Provincial parks show the diversity of Ontario’s nature and people. Possums live in parks like Rondeau on Lake Erie and Polar Bear is the namesake of Ontario’s largest provincial park, located on Hudson Bay. Parks in the south were influenced by early logging and farming. In the far north, parklands were influenced by the indigenous people who were there long before anyone else arrived.

Credit James Morgan
Scenes like this one at Rideau River are what has created many special memories for families in Ontario’s provincial parks.

People and parks

Most North Americans live in urban centers these days. We are also all woefully inactive and often don’t see much of anything outside our daily lives of concrete, steel and plastic. The Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative is designed to get people outside to enjoy the outdoors for their own benefit. On July 20, day use at all provincial parks in Ontario was free as part of the initiative.

At Rideau River Provincial Park just off Highway 416 near Kemptville, the beach was busy and families were enjoying picnics. Others were enjoying the water in canoes or fishing from the dock.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry was demonstrating how it safely and ethically treats problem bears, of course no real bears could actually be used though. A Resource Management Technician explained how they first try to get a bear to leave a populated area by scaring it with loud noises. If that doesn’t work, they have to relocate them using baited live traps that can be towed as a trailer, or the bear has to be sedated using a tranquilizer dart gun.

Enduring through policies and politics

Longtime Ontario provincial park visitors can be a fickle bunch. Like anything else under public control, the parks are subjected to the direction of government policy.

Credit James Morgan collection
The cover of the 1961 Ontario provincial parks guidebook.

Park geeks lament that campsites and picnic areas at some parks were closed over the decades as an effort to save money, but we are always happy when new parks are created or facilities expand. We complain about the prices of campsites, cabins and day use passes, but it is still a good bargain compared to some of the alternatives. We complain about not enough rule enforcement, or too much. Sometimes the bathrooms are dirty, sometimes they’re cleaner than in many motels.

Until 1972, provincial parks were operated by the Department of Lands and Forests. It was replaced with the Ministry of Natural Resources that year.

In 1996, Ontario, like most other governments, got caught up in the corporate branding trend and suddenly parks were all branded as “Ontario Parks,” with a single logo that began appearing on signage and maps. And since the election in June of this year, the provincial parks have been transferred to the new Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Government policy and operations aside, the provincial parks are not only places that conserve and preserve Ontario’s natural and human heritage, but they also are a unifying symbol of a big, diverse and complex province that is often difficult to define.

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