Parks Canada seeks change

May 15, 2009

WASAGAMING – Are Wasagaming’s days numbered as a Parks Canada resort town?

The federal department certainly hopes so. It wants to be released from managing the townsite and nearly 700 cottages on Clear Lake.

“Our expertise isn’t in social services,” said Don Huisman, townsite manager for Parks Canada. “Towns have special regulations, special laws, everything from dog catching to family services …which isn’t our mandate.”

It costs Ottawa about $1.5 million to run the townsite and service cottagers, and rent it collects from cottagers and businesses doesn’t cover that, Huisman said. Wasagaming is a seasonal resort town in Riding Mountain National Park, located about 95 kilometres north of Brandon.

Just five out of 42 national parks still have townsites managed by Parks Canada. The federal department got out of running Banff in the late 1980s, and Jasper was taken over by a local council just a few years ago.

Parks Canada almost had a deal to turn over the Waskesiu townsite in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan but that has been put on hold with the election of a new provincial government.

The key issue there is education taxes, said Huisman. In Manitoba, cottage owners in rural municipalities pay education taxes just like year round residents. That’s not the case now for cottagers in national parks like Riding Mountain.

The RM of Park, directly south of Wasagaming and which includes the village of Onanole, is interested in acquiring the resort town.

“To my way of thinking, it’s almost a no-brainer,” said councillor Dennis Jones. “Having two communities (Onanole and Wasagaming) and two governments side by side doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Joining together would eliminate duplication between the governments, and each community would benefit from the others’ strengths. For example, cottagers in the national park have sewer and water systems. Wasagaming also has more equipment like street sweepers and gravel trucks. The RM of Park has fire fighting equipment and the garbage disposal grounds used by Clear Lake cottagers.

There have been some informal talks about Wasagaming but no firm proposal from Parks Canada, said Jones.

Many Wasagaming businesses feel the federal government is too restrictive and would welcome more freedom to operate. A transfer would also allow Wasagaming to take advantage of provincial grants and infrastructure projects.

“We look at (a transfer) as inevitable,” Huisman said. “Basically, what we want is all our cottagers to say, ‘Let’s go,’”

But cottagers don’t want to let go.

“The cottagers are not in favour at all,” said Barbara Naimark, Clear Lake Cottage Owners’ Association president. The biggest reason is cottagers don’t want to pay education taxes, she said.

And cottagers simply like the way things are. “People don’t like to change,” said Naimark.

That’s despite Huisman’s assurances that the townsite would still be subject to National Park regulations, such as a ban on jet skis, a ban against cottagers renting out their cottages, and limits to cottage sizes (1,399 square feet of cottage living space, including guest house).

“This community still has the same look, the same feel, as 75 years ago when it began, and that’s something we don’t want to lose,” said Huisman.

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