The great Ontarian postwar parks boom

Provincial parks came into being 125 years ago — but they really hit their stride after the Second World War, when Ontarians went wild for the wilderness
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on July 20, 2018
Oastler Lake Provincial Park.
A colour postcard depicting Oastler Lake Provincial Park. (H. Oakman/Peterborough Postcard Company/ourontario.ca)

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“There is a lack of picnic areas within reasonable distance of large centres of population,” observed W.B. Greenwood, the head of Ontario’s Division of Parks, in late 1954. “We want to create a parks system where families can spend a day or a week, sleeping in tents and preparing their own food. If we can get families off the highways and into this type of setting, we will do much to ease congestion on our highways as well as make it possible for them to have a pleasant and inexpensive outing.”

In the period after the Second World War, Ontario’s growing urban population hit the road in search of recreation. But as highway traffic increased, quiet roadside picnic stops became harder to find. Existing public beaches and campgrounds were overrun, and local authorities were unable to cope with the stress on their communities. The increased demand, coupled with concerns about the need to conserve natural environments, led the provincial government to introduce the Provincial Parks Act in December 1954.

a 1970s logo for Ontario parks

While Ontario had operated provincial parks since the creation of Algonquin, in 1893, the system had grown little since then. When the act was passed, only eight parks existed; the newest of those, Lake Superior, dated back to 1944. The parks division spent its a 1970s Ontario parks brochure coverfirst year identifying appropriate sites across the province — beach access was a priority. In southern Ontario, parks would be located within a two-hour drive of major cities; in the north, they would be spread between 160 and 240 kilometres apart along the Highway 11 and Highway 17 corridors. Staff were asked to identify areas with unique flora and fauna, unusual geography, historical features, and beautiful scenery. A federal-provincial works program initiated by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government in 1958 funded reforestation, roads, and public amenities.

The government acquired future parkland in a number of ways. It bought some existing local sites, such as Sibbald Point, from municipalities — but purchasing land could be pricey, especially on highly developed waterways such as Lake Simcoe. Some parks were the result of land donations: playwright Merrill Denison, for example, turned over property along Mazinaw Lake, providing the seed for Bon Echo. And former lieutenant-governor Earl Rowe offered 48 acres near Alliston to create a getaway for people who didn’t own cottages. By the end of 1957, there were 77 parks in operation.

Communities soon realized that there could be benefits to having a provincial park nearby. In the mid-’50s, Wasaga Beach was hit by more than 50,000 visitors a day on summer weekends, and it lacked the infrastructure to accommodate them. Cars parked along the water’s edge, making walking along the beach risky. Only one public washroom was available along an eight-kilometre stretch of the beach, creating pollution problems. In 1959, the province took over a three-kilometre stretch and introduced such improvements as dedicated parking areas, a comfort station, portable changing huts, and lifeguard towers; it also increased the police presence. Over the next few years, more of the beachfront was added to the park.

Elsewhere, the province was unable to build campsites fast enough to meet demand. The number of campers using the parks rose from 86,641 in 1956 to more than 1 million in 1966. One summer saw 30,000 campers turned away due to a lack of space. “Camping has grown quietly, unaccompanied by the commercial ballyhoo and pressure promotion which normally heralds a change in our social habits,” the Toronto Daily Star reported in 1965. “It grew spontaneously as the answer to increased leisure time and the rising cost of living.” The price was reasonable: that year, pitching a tent cost $1.50 per night or $9 per week (roughly $12 daily and $70 weekly in today’s dollars). Improvements in camping technology — such as new lines of ice chests and gas stoves, and lightweight tents and equipment — made it easier to enjoy the great outdoors. Novice campers who gained experience at parks close to home became more comfortable trekking out to the interior of larger parks like Algonquin or Quetico.

Private operators were not happy with the popularity of park campsites. At its annual conference in 1961, the Ontario Tourist Courts Association passed a resolution demanding that the province lease the park campsites to private operators, raise rates to the private level, or close the campsites entirely. The government ignored it. “It is unrealistic,” read a Globe and Mail editorial, “to demand that campsites which have been bought and developed with public money for the benefit of the public should now be closed, or restricted, because they are proving too popular with the public.” Other defenders pointed out that the parks provided options for families unable to afford full-scale vacations, and suggested that if the private sector wanted to drum up more business, it could improve its promotional efforts or provide better value via creature comforts not on offer at the basic park campsites.

The popularity of parks, though, was accompanied by a rise in bad behaviour. Local families complained of receiving threats from drunk and rowdy youths. Motorcyclists raced over dunes and through other fragile natural zones. By the mid-’60s, the OPP had started patrolling popular parks, such as Pinery, Rondeau, and Wasaga Beach. There were nevertheless incidents: over the 1967 Victoria Day weekend at Pinery, for example, more than half of the park’s campsites were registered to London residents under the age of 20. The result, according to the park superintendent, was anarchy. “It was impossible to keep up to gangs leaving for Grand Bend and gangs coming back, all of which were drunk, speeding, racing, and screaming,” he wrote in a report. The police weren’t available, as they were busy trying to control a near-riot in Grand Bend. Eventually, some parks banned alcohol and motorcycles.

Conservationists were concerned that the natural environment would be harmed through exposure to so many visitors. Some complained that the parks were little more than picnic grounds where natural elements were sacrificed in favour of such conveniences as roads and concession stands. Litter was an issue, both on crowded beaches and on remote canoe routes — staff at Algonquin and Quetico began distributing yellow litter bags.

By 1967, the system had grown to 94 parks. That year, the province created five classifications to guide future development: natural environment (for traditional larger parks like Algonquin and Killbear); natural reserve (to protect natural habitats and ecosystems); primitive (for large areas of wilderness used primarily for educational and scientific purposes — the first, Polar Bear, opened in 1968); recreation (which accounted for two-thirds of existing parks); and wild river (to protect certain rivers). Some of the names have changed — and the category “cultural heritage” had been added for sites like Petroglyphs — but the same general classifications are used today.

Today, as the system marks its 125th anniversary, there are more than 330 parks across the province. Perhaps key to their success is an idea summed up by Frank MacDougall, deputy minister of lands and forests, in 1964:“The parks are for people who want to get away from everyday life.”

Sources: Protected Places: A History of Ontario’s Provincial Parks System by Gerald Killan (Toronto: Dundurn, 1993); the September 3, 1959 and November 28, 1961 editions of the Barrie Examiner; the November 25, 1954, August 8, 1959, November 10, 1961, October 15, 1964, and July 13, 1965 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the August 28, 1965 edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

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