Premier Brian Pallister's government may have told Manitobans it would never sell provincial parks — but it didn't say they wouldn't be leased.
Until Monday, Manitobans who went to St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park were told their provincial park passes were invalid after a 21-year lease was awarded to Manitoba businessman Sterling Ducharme in January to operate the 46-hectare of Crown land.
News of the lease has sparked warnings from environmental groups and opposition leaders, who say this is the first step to the privatization of Manitoba parks.
Ducharme, who owns a general store in the nearby village of St. Ambroise, would not comment Monday.
Late Monday afternoon, Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard said in a statement there had been "recent misinformation" and "confusion" about park passes not being accepted at St. Ambroise.
"Manitobans will have full access to this public space with their provincial park passes as has always been the intention," said Guillemard.
But Guillemard defended the province's decision to lease the park.
"The province's partnership with this service provider is enabling St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park to be revitalized and to recover from the previous damage... the previous NDP government did nothing to help St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park since the 2011 flood and instead sat idly until our government took action to enhance the visitor experience at the park by engaging in the partnership with the service provider.
"Our provincial parks are not for sale, but they are ready for improvements... we will continue to build partnerships to help enhance visitors' experiences."
On the weekend, Amanda Walder was one of many who were shocked to learn her provincial pass wasn’t valid at the park, located about 70 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg on the southeast shore of Lake Manitoba.
"Manitobans don't care what type of weasel words the premier uses. Manitobans don't want to privatize provincial parks... this really, really stinks." ‐ Eric Reder, Manitoba chapter of the Wilderness Committee
When she arrived with her $44 park pass, Walder said a man at a hastily erected checkpoint, with a hand-written sign, demanded she pay a $10 daily user fee to go to the beach.
She told him she had no cash, so he waved her through, but not before telling her that a local man was running the park, having invested $100,000 in the site because the government didn’t want to pay anyone to maintain the washrooms at the beach, Walder said.
She said other beach-goers told her husband they had paid the $10 fee to access the beach.
Walder, who regularly uses provincial parks, said she’s angry the government has turned the park over to a businessman.
"What I am most upset about is that the government has been saying they aren’t privatizing parks, but what else can you call this?" she said.
Walder said she and her family will now boycott St. Ambroise as a sign of protest against privatization — and she’s encouraging others do the same.
Back in April, during his budget speech, Finance Minister Scott Fielding announced a new $20 million endowment fund for provincial parks saying it was "so Manitobans can enjoy them for generations to come, because Manitoba's parks are not for sale."
While Pallister's government has not technically sold the park, he has sold access to it, said Eric Reder, representing the Manitoba chapter of the Wilderness Committee.
"Manitobans don't care what type of weasel words the premier uses. Manitobans don't want to privatize provincial parks... this really, really stinks."
Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the group is "highly concerned, as provincial parks should be available and open to all Manitobans."
Thiessen said the camping rate at St. Ambroise is now $50 per night versus the rate of $11-$23 in other provincial parks.
Ducharme has set up an RV campground on the north side of the lakeside park and renamed it Surfside Beach Campground.
The Surfside website shows seasonal rates are between $1,500-$2,500 this year, with prices expected to jump as high as $3,750 next year. Thiessen said that’s costly compared to the rate of $1,061 in provincial parks.
"We're very concerned with the precedent this sets ‐ are we going to see more and more of them privatized?" ‐ Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
"We're very concerned with the precedent this sets — are we going to see more and more of them privatized?" Thiessen asked.
The park was heavily damaged during the 2011 flood. The campground never reopened, but the day-use areas did in 2013.
Last July, the province quietly put out a request for proposal for the development and operation of a seasonal campground in the provincial park, as well as the operation and maintenance of the public beach area.
Under the terms of the lease, which began Jan. 1, no changes or improvements are allowed at the site, other than general repair, unless it is approved by Manitoba Parks.
In a statement, NDP leader Wab Kinew said: "The PCs claimed our parks were not for sale, but it turns out they have effectively privatized the land and raised prices for families.
"They aren't for the premier to sell off; they belong to all of us. He needs to be clear with Manitobans about his plans to privatize more of our parks."
NDP MLA Lisa Naylor called the move "underhanded and dishonest.
"We want to keep parks for the use of all Manitobans and that they are affordable."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said parks are a public service and shouldn't be a profit centre.
"Even if you've already paid for a park pass, the PCs are letting a private company set up a toll booth so you have to pay extra to get access to a beach we all own and share," said Lamont. "That's the essence of privatization: letting private companies make extra money charging you for something that's already yours."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.