The Tory government had been mulling a private model for Manitoba parks months before it finalized a 21-year lease with a businessman to operate St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park on Lake Manitoba.
In an advisory note, the government said the parks and protected spaces branch was exploring opportunities to work with local communities and operators to improve services in provincial parks and in a more sustainable manner.
"The department has recently awarded the commercial leasing of St. Ambroise Provincial Park," stated the document dated Sept. 14, 2020.
"The contract with the local operator is currently under development and will provide a template for future potential partnerships in parks, including as an example of a P3 partnership with a private operator. This new private commercial operator will develop a campground within the park and maintain the public day-use beach area and amenities."
The provincial government confirmed in June the lease had been awarded to Sterling Ducharme in January 2021.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew tabled the document, which his party received through a freedom of information request, in the legislature Thursday. He said it confirms the Progressive Conservative government wants to privatize parks.
"We want Manitoba’s public parks to remain public," Kinew said.
"The government is looking at P3 models — privatization — when it comes to parks here in the province. That’s a big concern for us, especially during these pandemic years when Manitobans have really come to enjoy the parks with a renewed appreciation.
"Manitobans should be able to enjoy these public parks knowing that services and the investments are going to be made for the public on their behalf."
Kinew reminded people that at St. Ambroise last summer, the private operator turned away people who wanted to use their provincial park pass, and demanded they pay a $10 daily fee. The government finally stepped in and told the operator he had to accept the park passes there.
"Fees were increased on their watch," he said. "All of that is not in line with what Manitobans want.
"Manitobans want affordability, accessibility and, most of all, public parks to stay public."
The camping rate at St. Ambroise was $50 per night last summer compared to the rate at other parks of between $11 to $23. The season pass was between $1,500 to $2,500, compared to $1,061 in provincial parks.
Ron Thiessen, the executive director of the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said "the Manitoba government is going in the wrong direction.
"It will make our parks less accessible… seeking financial sustainability misses the point. It says nothing about what it means to tourism and other areas. A (Canadian Parks Council) report says for every $1 spent in parks, it means $6 to the economy.
"We think the Manitoba government should immediately reverse direction in privatizing parks."
When Eric Reder, of the Wilderness Committee, was read sections of the document, his initial response was "wow."
Reder said the document comes after he spent the summer months travelling the province and finding many Conservation offices were closed some days of the week and, in parks, he could find very few staff.
"For the government to say we are not going to look after parks, we’ll have somebody else look after them, is wrong," he said. "Citizens in the past have paid to get these parks. The majority of Manitoba have always supported maintaining and expanding them.
"If Premier Stefanson is looking for a change in direction from premier Pallister, not privatizing parks would be one way."
Deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen refuted Kinew’s claim, saying "our parks are not for sale."
Conservation Minister Sarah Guillemard said private businesses have operated in provincial parks for decades.
Guillemard said the government is happy with the arrangement in place at St. Ambroise.
"We are very proud to have partnered with a Métis-owned company, who is running the area that was devastated in 2011, and the NDP government put zero dollars into restoring," Guillemard said in the chamber.
"It wasn’t a park until this company came in and provided a space for everyone to use again."
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.