Open letter to Jeff Yurek, MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London and Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks
As Ontario begins to consider its careful and considered reopening after the pandemic period, it would be prudent and wise to return the province’s treasured outdoor spaces to its residents.
Parks Canada announced on April 15 that it will be closed until at least the end of May, closing off the federally-operated outdoor spaces to Ontario residents through most of Spring. The reason stated is that Canadians should stay home and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. While preventing the spread of COVID-19 and flattening the curve on the burden placed on hospitals is paramount, opening up backcountry camping opportunities to Ontario residents is worthwhile and low risk.
As the data indicate that Ontario is reaching the peak of the COVID-19 infection rate curve, Ontario is already turning its attention to a loosening of the intense lockdown rules in effect. Opening up the provincial parks with partial drive-in campground facilities and full backcountry access could be done in a safe way that yields many benefits to Ontarians and should be one of the first actions taken in a return to normalcy. After all, fishing season remains open.
The risks posed by re-opening the parks include spreading the disease as people travel around the province. But that travel could be accomplished while respecting social distancing. Ask campers travelling to parks to do their grocery shopping in their local communities and to fill up their tanks near their home. Campers include only members of their household in their groups and plan to drive directly to their park access location. This will minimize contact between campers and residents of local communities. Also, ask campers to return home if they develop any symptoms of COVID-19.
Park staff would also be at risk if required to interact with campers that are buying their permits to enter the backcountry. But Ontario has already removed the need to interact with park staff in many different parks and that same procedure could be extended to cover all parks. Using Ontario Parks online permit-issuing system, campers could have their permit printed out at home before they arrive. Staff could avoid all contact with campers.
Another aspect to consider is the physical and mental health benefits. One side-effect of the social distancing measures Ontario residents are being forced to endure is deteriorating mental health. The situation is so dire that some are describing the widespread anxiety and dread we’re experiencing as an “echo pandemic.” Mental health support services are seeing a huge uptick in demand for their services. Kids Help Phone said at the end of March its call volume has tripled. The Canadian Mental Health Agency is also reporting more incoming calls.
As camping enthusiasts know, spending time outdoors is a salve for anxiety. Numerous scientific studies confirm that spending time surrounded by nature, in fresh air, is not only good for you physically, but psychologically as well. Campers will be able to enjoy the quiet solitude of Ontario’s backcountry while easily keeping a safe distance from others visiting these vast outdoor spaces.
Reopen our provincial parks. After all, as we’re considering our new post-pandemic reality we’ll all be better off while social distancing if we’re separated by the rock outcroppings of the Canadian shield and the green boreal barrier of our mixed forests, rather than the drywall and concrete of our cities.
of The Urban Paddlers – www.urbanpaddler.ca