For 65 years, B’nai Brith Camp (BB Camp) has offered an overnight summer camp experience, mostly for kids from Winnipeg, in a pristine wilderness setting on Town Island, which is located on Lake of the Woods, about five kilometres south of Kenora, Ont. Now, it looks likes BB Camp may have to share the island with cottagers or other residents.
The City of Kenora, located in northwestern Ontario near the border with Manitoba, has issued a “Call of Expressions of Interest in the Acquisition of Town Island (RFP).” Kenora is looking to sell its share of the 80-hectare island and use the proceeds to acquire provincial land closer to the city, to use for development.
However, a group known as Friends of Town Island – which includes BB Camp, area cottagers, another overnight camp that uses the island’s outdoor facilities and other stakeholders – is circulating an online petition calling on Kenora “to negotiate a deal to conserve Town Island for the future.”
The petition, which has garnered nearly 7,500 signatures, states that, “By seeking proposals for the development of Town Island on Lake of the Woods, politicians in Kenora are putting the interests of big business ahead of kids and the environment. For more than 100 years, Town Island has been the home-away-from-home for thousands of youth campers and countless area residents and cottagers who are inspired by its natural beauty.”
Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) weighed in with an open letter sent to the City of Kenora. Noting that much of the area surrounding Lake of the Woods is already developed, NCC said that it supports the “conservation of a portion of Town Island.”
Aaron London, chair of Friends of Town Island and a former chair of the board of BB Camp, which owns 12 hectares of land on the island, said opponents of development want to see the island placed into a conservancy trust.
“There are hundreds of cottagers in the area for whom Town Island is a natural touchstone,” he said. In addition, fishermen stop on the island and YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens, which is located on a nearby island, also uses Town Island for excursions.
Friends of Town Island met with Kenora’s mayor in October and hopes to meet with representatives from the province.
“We are working hard to bring Kenora politicians to the negotiating table, in order to find a commercially viable conservation solution for the city, the Friends of Town Island and the public, who will all benefit from placing the land in trust,” London said.
Whether they can alter the course set by Kenora remains to be seen. The city had been attempting to retain Town Island as a pristine, undeveloped property, but its attempts to swap it for provincial lands have so far failed.
“We’re not going back to the province. We’ve already made that determination,” Kenora Mayor Dan Reynard told The CJN.
Reynard said that talks with the province went on for years, “but it just seemed to get bogged down in the system.” In the meantime, “we’ve got this asset and a big infrastructure deficit within the community,” he said.
According to the city’s request for proposal, “Over the past 10 years, the city has investigated the potential transfer of Town Island in exchange for Crown land of equal value within or adjacent to the city boundaries. The intent was to seek properties for residential and recreational land development within the city. In exchange, the province would add the Town Island property into its Lands for Life Program, also referred to as the Lake of the Woods Conservation Reserve.”
The document goes on to note that the province has “advised that the former Lands for Life Program is no longer active and they no longer have any interest in acquiring the Town Island property.”
For his part, London said that, “We’re not privy to why Kenora failed in its goal of conserving Town Island. As the only community-based conservation solution, we’re not locked into a single solution, as was Kenora. With the support of Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ontario’s recent policy and financial commitments to the environment and the support of our stakeholders, we are confident a public, private or hybrid conservation solution can be executed.
“There are no impediments, except Kenora’s unwillingness to engage with us to let us help do now what they have wanted to do for a decade.”
Reynard, however, said there’s nothing in the city’s request for proposal that requires the island be turned over to developers. The city is open to receiving bids from stakeholders who wish to retain the island in its undeveloped state. Following the October meeting with the Friends of Town Island, the city agreed to extend the deadline for bids until the end of January, to give the stakeholders more time to look into a bid, Reynard said.
Reynard suggested that much of the opposition to the city’s plans was coming from outside the community. He also stressed that funds from the sale of the island will be used to address the needs of Kenora residents.
“We have the opportunity to address infrastructure or housing issues in Kenora, including social housing and housing for seniors,” he said.
Reynard said the best-case scenario for all concerned would be for the stakeholders to acquire the land. In that case, he suggested, the city would get the “money from an asset we cannot use” and “invest in the city to create social and economic benefits to our community.”