MNR cutting costs or changing lives - Comment
November 05, 2012
By: The Sault Star
A long, long time ago a smartass 16-year-old from southern Ontario city stepped onto a station platform at the end of the earth, otherwise known as Cochrane, Ont.
It had been a long, sleepless night on an antique of a Northern Ontario train with a strange assortment of loud and sometimes impaired Northern Ontario travellers. For the last few hours the train had crawled through a swamp past freight cars apparently derailed by frost heaving.
The teen was directed to the back bed of a medium-sized truck. Bundled onto wooden benches with about 20 much-tougher-looking guys, he was driven through more uninhabited bush than he had ever imagined. About 75 kilometres of it.
Then, after claiming a cot in a three-man tent pitched on a wooden platform beside a sandy road, he was put to work cutting down trees for firewood.
Thus began a life-changing summer as an Ontario Ranger, known in those distant days as Junior Forest Rangers.
The term “smartass” might already have betrayed that this particular 16-year-old ranger was me.
But it could have been any one of many thousands of Ontario teens removed from their comfort zones and put to work for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Northern Ontario over the ranger program’s almost 70 years.
Until Sept. 27, that is, when it was announced the program will be cancelled.
It’s one of dozens of picayune cuts aimed at putting a dent in the deficit. As I wrote in an early column on MNR plans to close some parks to overnight camping, these cost-saving measures are tiny drops in the very leaky bucket of the provincial budget.
Like most MNR “efficiencies,” cutting the ranger program will be Northern Ontario’s loss. In an article in the Cochrane Times-Post, reporter Chris Clarke describes how last summer’s crop of rangers provided free labour for several local festivals, cleared trails and campsites, spruced up the Polar Bear Habitat, helped conduct scientific studies and worked with MNR technicians on sturgeon netting.
They were “silent volunteers working all around Cochrane.”
One might think, with tight funding making it a struggle for the MNR to maintain and improve parks and other recreational facilities, Ontario Rangers might be a program it would want to expand, not chop.
While some Northerners are upset, most of the voices lamenting the demise of the ranger program -- and if you plug “Ontario rangers” into your search engine you’ll find them -- are from southern Ontario.
And they’re talking mainly about what they took away from the program, not what they left behind in the North.
They speak of learning punctuality, respect, confidence, leadership, teamwork. One told the Times-Post that rangers saved him and gave his life focus. He’s now taking courses in climate policy and indigenous studies at Dalhousie University, on track to becoming a lawyer specializing in environmental policy.
That’s a common theme.
So “life-changing experience” is not an exaggeration.
Perhaps that’s why an online petition at change.org, set up by a London girl to protest the termination of Ontario Rangers, has garnered more than 3,600 signatures.
Former rangers know the day-based program the ministry presents as an alternative can’t come close to the experience of living and working with the same group round the clock for eight coming-of-age weeks.
If it weren’t for Junior Forest Rangers, I wouldn’t be here.
“Here” being the Sault Ste. Marie area, where I have lived and worked for more than half my life.
The program gave a southern city kid a geographic home for his love of nature: Northern Ontario.
And the people of Cochrane, notably a storeowner who happily extended credit to this 16-year-old who urgently needed proper workwear and warmer clothes, introduced me to the northern spirit.
So when the career opportunity presented itself, I moved to the Sault, not some place like St. Catharines.
As well, I don’t think I would be “here” in the sense of having become a reasonably productive, fairly well-adjusted adult who has managed to figure out how to use “smartass” to make a living.
At age 16, if I wasn’t really the juvenile delinquent several teachers insisted I was, it might only have been because I never applied myself to anything.
Probably most rangers have been average teens. Some might have been exceptional students. But our camp seemed to have been set up to handle any hard cases referred to the program. A few of my ranger campmates had had brushes with the law, and all of us were foul-ups.
Our supervisor, a Cochrane school principal named Dick Moore, was a master practitioner of tough love long before that phrase became a staple of popular psychology.
But he also let boys be boys, way back in the bush where their hijinks were unlikely to hurt anyone but themselves, which seemed to be permissible in that era.
The more responsibility and work ethic we displayed, the less we saw of “tough” from Dick. Very quickly we became a kick-ass, if rowdy, work team, so efficient and productive the MNR had to scrounge up more jobs for us to do.
After cutting enough cordwood for several parks, we rebuilt stone fireplaces at camping spots, planted tree seedlings, helped map depths of a number of lakes and were trained and ready to fight forest fires, had the summer been hotter and drier. (It snowed on Aug. 1.)
Junior Rangers didn’t change us miraculously and permanently into high achievers. My own path still had some meandering ahead.
But we came out of the bush knowing we were capable of good things, perhaps even superior accomplishments. We had learned that hard, constructive work can be rewarding.
Most important, we could value ourselves and we had been valued by society.
I don’t know where “here” would be without my Ontario Ranger program experience. But I have to think it wouldn’t be anywhere near as nice as this is.