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'The public has no legal right to use Ontario's public lands'

Thursday, July 17, 2014   by: SooToday.com Staff

SooToday.com received the following letter to the editor from Simon Guillet regarding the MNR closing canoe portages.

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According to the Ontario Liberal government, and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), in their own words, “the public has no legal right to use Ontario’s public lands. It only has a privilege.”  And it is a “privilege” that we are being denied more and more by this government. 

Many believe that the government is badly mistaken and that Ontarians do have the legal right to access their own public lands under Section 3 of the Ontario Public Lands Act and under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  It is a point that must be challenged in court, if only we could afford it as private citizens.

For decades, the government through the MNR has severely restricted access to over 2,000 of our best lakes and vast areas of prime public lands, mostly for the benefit of the remote tourism industry and its “guests” willing to pay big bucks for the remoteness, which means that no locals will bother them.

Now, the MNR is taking their privatization of public lands one step further by blocking canoeists from using a very historic portage at Bala Falls. The MNR claims that it’s for reasons of “public safety” but Bala residents are certain that the real reason is to allow the construction of a huge hydro-electric project at Bala Falls, one that residents do not want nor need. 

The case is now before the Ontario Court of Appeals with the township of Bala maintaining that the Public Lands Act gives people the right to portage if a route existed before the Crown sold or disposed of its land. The government’s position is that aspect of the legislation doesn’t apply.

Canoeing and portaging is an intrinsic part of Canada and our history; it is how our country was opened up by explorers.  Our rivers served as our highways for centuries by the aboriginals and early settlers and the fur trade. It is part of our identity; we have always had the right to portage, without which the right of navigation is meaningless. It is our land – and we want to be able to enjoy its beauty and splendour. It is our historical right, dating over four centuries.

However, we Ontarians deserve what we tolerate. Already, most of our biggest and best lakes are off limits to us unless one registers as a paying guest at high-priced tourist lodges. Many of our forest roads, built with public money, are closed off and posted “No Trespassing” so that we cannot enjoy our natural heritage. 

What’s next on the MNR’s agenda? If they succeed closing portages in Bala, there will no doubt be other closures of portages. Is this the beginning of the end of the only remaining free means of accessing and enjoying our remote wilderness?

Simon Guillet

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