By Lindsay Briscoe
Over 150 former Ontario Rangers and their supporters took to Queen’s Park on Jan. 4 in an attempt to show the Ontario government that they won’t let a “life-altering” program go down without a fight.
Like so many others, Red Lake-born Sarah Collins says it’s hard to explain something that was such a big part of her own life.
When she was 17, her dad Merrill, who works for the MNR in Red Lake, encouraged Collins to apply for the Ontario Ranger Program (formerly known as the Junior Ranger Program). She couldn’t think of any reason not to go.
She was assigned to a camp called Esker Lakes – near Kirkland Lake, Ontario where she lived in a cabin nestled in an old growth jack pine forest, overlooking the water with a group of twenty-odd other women – total strangers. By the end of it all, many of them would be friends for life.
In the downtime the girls did regular summer things: Swimming, hiking, playing sports and “anything else they could get their hands on,” but it was the actual work they were there for. During a two month period, the group – along with 12 others across the province – honed a number of important skills working for minimum wage in Ontario’s public spaces. They brushed trails, maintained portage routes, restocked lakes with fish, took care of fish hatcheries and worked with First Nations communities.
“Of course being at an age when high school is your whole entire world, this can really change you as a person,” says Collins. “I gained so much more confidence and independence…My Ranger summer also gave me a lot of skills I might not have otherwise learned.”
There are hundreds of other women – and men – from all corners of Ontario who say the same thing: The Ontario Ranger Program changed them forever.
In September 2012, in an effort to “modernize its business and operate on a more cost efficient basis,” the Ontario government decided that the over 40 year old program would be cut.
“The decisions we’re making are necessary to modernize our business, make the ministry sustainable, and help the government balance the budget,” stated Ontario Minister of Natural Resources Michael Gravelle back in the fall. “I’m confident that we will be more efficient and better organized to focus on what matters most to the people who rely on the ministry’s programs and services.”
The Ministry decided a new day-based youth employment program called the Stewardship Youth Ranger Program would replace the overnight Ontario Ranger Program.
Friday’s rally organizer, Emily Kerton of Thunder Bay, says the decision is a “mistake” and that the idea to take Queen’s Park will hopefully turn a few heads.
“I really hope that we just get more attention brought to this issue. I think that many people in Ontario don’t even realize that the program is being shut down,” said Kerton. “In the end what we really hope for is a reversal of this decision to close the Ontario Ranger Camps. Whether that’s going to happen, we don’t know so we just have our fingers crossed.”
Kerton and Collins, both having also been part of the program’s staff for nearly a decade, say they’ve watched hundreds of young women become confident, independent, skilled individuals. Many of them, including Collins herself who holds a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Conservation, went on to study and work in related fields.
“It’s a shame that now everyone’s going to know it as that wonderful program that was canned because the Ontario government didn’t feel it was worth the money,” concluded Kerton.