‘The biggest thing this industry has ever faced’: Northern outfitters brace for COVID-19

Operators in northern Ontario who rely on tourist dollars are worried they’ll lose the season — or have to shut down altogether
By Jon Thompson - Published on May 01, 2020
Frog Rapids Camps on Frog Rapids, Pelican Lake. (Jon Thompson)

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Excellent Adventures co-owner Faron Buckler had expected 25 Texan doctors to be loading their fishing gear onto floatplanes in Red Lake on Victoria Day weekend. They’d then lift off for lodges in the northern Ontario wilderness, hoping to bring home a trophy fish — or at least a good story about the one that got away.

But, across northern Ontario, hunting outfitters, such as Buckler’s, are beginning to worry that 2020 might be the year the whole summer got away. Non-essential businesses remain shut due to a provincial order, and the United States-Canada border will be closed to recreational traffic until at least May 20. “We're definitely worried we could lose the year,” Buckler says. “We're losing a lot of the tourists already. They're scared to travel, and they're not certain of the conditions — especially the older clientele.”

With only weeks left before opening weekend, Buckler’s 30 staffers would typically be taking trips in the company’s three- and nine-seat float planes to prepare sites at the lodges and at the five outpost camps his own family operates. Instead, he’s spending much of his time filing paperwork and pushing his clients’ dream vacations deeper into the summer in hopes that the coronavirus will retreat enough that he’ll be able open up. “We were looking at one of our busiest years in 10 years,” says. “The economy was good in the States. The exchange rate was good. They were just starting to spend like they did before the ’08 recession. They were buying souvenirs — an armload of things to take back after they’re done their trip — and then this happened.”

The winter maintenance on his aircraft alone runs $140,000, and social assistance for guides and other seasonal workers ran out in March. Even if some portion of the season can be saved, he’s not sure they’ll get enough hours to qualify and make it through next winter. Seasonal workers in Ontario must work between 420 and 700 hours to qualify for employment insurance during the off-season.

Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, the organization that represents outfitters across the province, has been urging its members to bump May and June reservations into July and August, especially if that’s what it takes to hold onto deposits that have already been spent. NOTO’s executive director, Laurie Marcil, says that she respects the direction of health professionals and that no one is suggesting that travel restrictions be lifted before it’s safe to do so — but her membership is worried. “That border is not opening anytime soon,” she says. “It’s a huge possibility that we don’t have a season for a lot of these guys. We’re trying not to lose any of them, but some of the smaller guys aren’t going to survive this. It’s terrifying.”

According to David MacLachlan, executive director of Destination Northern Ontario, a provincially funded tourism organization, some areas of northern Ontario are 90 per cent reliant on American markets. In the 65 years that MacLachlan’s family has owned lodges northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, he has seen the so-called hook and bullet operators endure plane crashes, forest fires, floods, and wave after wave of economic turbulence. But he has never seen anything that has threatened to cancel an entire season. “COVID is probably the biggest thing this industry has ever faced — but we don’t know what we’re facing yet,” MacLachlan says. “We don’t really have a good understanding of what the bigger longer-term effects are going to be. And not only here, but in Michigan, where we’re drawing people from, or Minnesota — is this going to be a quick rebound, or is this going to be a bit of a hole that’s going to take a few years to dig your way out of?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not indicated when the U.S.-Canadian border might reopen again. “We have strong border measures in place to ensure that we’re doing what we need to do to protect Canada,” Trudeau said during an April 23 press conference. “As provinces look at their own situation and how we can move forward on beginning to re-open our economy, I know that their decisions and our decisions will be informed by what is working and what is perhaps not working as well elsewhere in the world.” The comments came after the federal government announced a $960 million investment in community- and regional-development agencies, including FedNor in northern Ontario.

On April 28, three northern Ontario MPs issued a joint letter to the ministers of finance, transport, Indigenous services, and economic development in which they called existing financial supports “not adequate” for the outdoor-tourism industry. They also urged the government to expand social assistance beyond June, provide “immediate relief to help cover start-up costs,” particularly flight insurance, and offer grants for those businesses to cover costs over the summer.

A spokesperson for Mélanie Joly, the minister of economic development, told TVO.org via email that “we share the MPs’ concerns, and look forward to working with them to support tourism.” They made reference to “broad measures,” such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Business Account, and the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance, and to the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund. FedNor, they said, “stands ready to ‘scale up’ its efforts to meet the moment” and will continue to work with the tourism sector to identify gaps in the response: “Our message to Canadian tourism and those whose livelihoods depend on it is clear: we’re here for you now with immediate measures, we’ll be here for you in next weeks and months to come with further support, and we’ll be here for you as get we through this together, and come back stronger than before.”

For Sioux Narrows-Nestor Falls, a 50-kilometre-long municipality with a year-round population of fewer than 1,000 residents, tourism is the pillar of its economy. The two towns that flank First Nations in Whitefish Bay are made up largely of summer homes and lodges sprinkled along a narrow stretch of land between Kenora and Fort Frances. Its population booms to 5,000 in the summer, and its commercial residences outnumber residential properties by a three-to-one ratio. “With everything that’s happened already, if I started to worry about losing the whole summer, I’d go crazy,” says town councillor Matt Rydberg, who operates a 13-cabin outfit in Sioux Narrows called Crawford’s Camp.

Afraid to get caught on the wrong side of the border if it closed, American tourists who had been ice fishing at Crawford’s in March left their destination getaway early. That was the last wave Rydberg saw. He lost the end of the ice-fishing season, and then he missed potential traffic from the official reinstatement of the spring bear hunt in April and May. He’s now receiving calls and emails from Manitoban summer residents who have been asked not to go to their “camps” on the lake because northwestern Ontario’s health-care infrastructure wouldn’t be able to handle the population influx and increased pressure from COVID-19.

Throughout the lockdown, the provincial government has emphasized summer concerts and urban-tourism infrastructure during teleconferences, but Rydberg says he’s heard little about how to mitigate the total loss of tourism in a community where 76 per cent of local businesses are directly reliant on the industry (TVO.org reached out to the province, but it declined to provide comment).

“Even if it [the border] opens in June or July, people aren’t going to travel. Even if they come to a lodge like ours, community people are going to be asking that travellers don’t go to the grocery store. They’ll have to bring all their supplies, so that’s going to limit income coming in,” he says. “You hear about Niagara, the museums and arts festivals that bring money into the economy in those larger centres, but for us in smaller communities, this is something that’s going to hit us hard.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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