Why you should care about golfers and boat owners

OPINION: You may not feel much sympathy for those who want to be on the links or out on the water — but you should be concerned that Ontario’s policies don't make any sense
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 17, 2021
Under the current stay-at-home order, the province’s marinas are largely closed. (iStock/benedek)

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One of the most frustrating things about this long, unnecessary third wave is how terrible we have been at learning the lessons of earlier waves. I wrote about that recently in a series of columns about various reports into Ontario’s long-term-care system — the first wave caught us by surprise, but the second wave somehow did even more damage. It was like we hadn’t learned a damn thing.

This is not as important as the carnage in our long-term-care homes. But another example recently popped up on my radar. It was just over a year ago at TVO.org that I was writing about the business owners in our rural areas, particularly the cottage-country areas (mainly around Toronto) that are totally dependent on the economic activity of seasonal tourism businesses. One of the categories of business I looked at was marinas. The rules were a mess.

In an interview with two marina owners last April, I explored how confusing and conflicted the rules were. Some boats could be launched, some of the time, for some purposes. Other boats couldn’t be launched at all. Some people had a valid reason to be travelling on Ontario’s waterways; a lot of people didn’t. The rules were confusing, sometimes contradictory, almost always unclear. 

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We haven’t done much better this time.

We’ve done somewhat better. Under the current stay-at-home order, the province’s marinas are largely closed. Some lessons have been learned since last year; the text of the order makes explicitly clear, for instance, that boats can be repaired and maintained. They can even be launched, so long as they're immediately tied up and secured within the marina. There is language in the order that makes clear that vessels that are required to operate commercial barges, to support government operations (patrol craft, mostly), or to allow residents to reach water-access-only homes may be launched. Also, restaurants that are located within marinas may open for curbside pickup or delivery service. This clarity is an improvement over last year.

But there are still absurdities in this system, because, while launching a boat from a marina is still banned, launching a boat from a municipal or provincial boat launch is just fine.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, a boat launch is basically just a ramp — sometimes earthen, usually concrete — that slopes from a road-accessible surface down into the water. Vessels, from little Jet Skis to large boats, can be put into the water after a winter season of dry storage on land by putting the vessel on a trailer, attaching the trailer to a suitably powerful car or truck, and then just backing the trailer down the ramp into the water. Easy-peasy. The vessel floats off the trailer, and the car or truck pulls the now empty trailer back out of the water, up the ramp. Vessel launched.

If you keep your boat or Jet Ski or whatever at a marina, getting it launched at the start of a season is normally just part of your annual fee. But if you don't, launching your boat is just a small fee any marina can charge — it’s typically a few bucks (the most I've ever heard of is $25, and it's often lower). Right now, marinas can't offer this service, even for the boats that stay there year-round. But provincial parks and municipal launches? Sure, many of those are open. Some are even offering launches for free.

The government's explanation for why public launches are open makes perfect sense. Boating, for those lucky enough to own the relevant vessel (more on that in a minute), is a pretty safe way to get outdoors and get some fresh air. So long as you're only boating with people you already live with, it's actually hard to imagine a more isolated experience. You are literally floating on a boat surrounded by water. You can't do much better than that. In this context, the government's decision to keep public launches open makes perfect sense — let people get out there and enjoy some fresh air in a safe, isolated way, especially now that summer has suddenly arrived, essentially overnight, in Ontario.

But the private launches must remain closed, because ... well, actually, I don't know how to finish this sentence. Because why? Because Ontario? Because why the [expletive deleted] not? 

It's hard to get the public on board with sympathy for people who own boats. I don't expect anyone sitting at home in their cramped condo or apartment, worried about next month's bills, to sit up after reading this column and begin organizing a Justice for Marinas march. It's the same with the golfers and the tennis players and, to resurrect another debate from last year, the cottage-owners. In a time when so many livelihoods have been destroyed, and when those who were already economically marginalized and vulnerable have taken a real beating, sympathy for the boaters is going to be at a low ebb.

I understand that, and I understand the instinct that drives those feelings. But the issue here isn't that relatively affluent people are being mildly inconvenienced. It's that the government's policies — which we all live under — don't make any damned sense. This isn't the government striking a blow for economic equality and social justice. This is a government that is governing all of us, rich and poor alike, and doing so with weird, inconsistent rules that don't make any sense. And it's doing so not only at the expense of the relatively wealthy golfers and boaters, but also of the working-class people and business owners who make their livelihoods off those industries — industries that have been shut for no particular reason beyond the government's political sensitivity to being seen as going soft of golfers while the schools sit empty.

This is dumb. There are valid (if controversial) reasons to keep schools closed. There are basically no valid reasons to close golf courses or to close some boat launches but not others. You might not golf, and you might not own a boat, but you still live in this province, and you're still subject to these weird rules.

This should bother you. Illogic and inconsistency don’t become public-policy virtues just because they’re inconveniencing people you don’t like much. 

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