For more than a century along the glimmering shores of Lake Erie, a few hundred cottage owners in Rondeau Provincial Park have been granted leases for their vacation properties.

The setting is idyllic, a place where cottagers wave to each other from porches and on bike rides through the leafy park. But the situation is less than ideal.

Provincial governments have threatened to end the lease arrangement for decades, but have instead extended the agreements and left the situation unresolved. Now, the Ford government is considering selling the park land to the cottage owners through a deal proposed by the cottagers and the nearby municipality of Chatham-Kent involving a land swap.

Cottagers resent the tenuous arrangement, which allows them to own their summer homes, but not the land on which they sit. They have pushed for decades for a way to stay permanently.

Environmentalists argue the 279 cottages hurt Rondeau’s delicate ecosystems and fear selling provincial parkland would set an uneasy precedent.

Cottagers, environmentalists and the provincial government can agree on two things: Rondeau is worth protecting, and the situation must change.

“Everybody that is here lives with the sword of Damocles hanging over them,” said Dave Colby, the head of the Rondeau Cottagers Association.

“Are we going to be able to stay? We're at the whim of the government all the time.”

Opponents, meanwhile, are gearing up for a fight.

“(People) built those cottages under the condition that the land was leased, and eventually, they would have to give it up,” said Tim Gray, executive director of the non-profit Environmental Defence.

The Ford government is considering whether to sell lots of land in Rondeau Provincial Park to cottagers who have leased them for decades. But do cottages belong in a public park? #onpoli

“This is something that they were never promised.”

Should Ontario instead kick out families whose histories are intertwined with that of the park? The idea is difficult, even for many who argue against the cottages.

“I'm not saying the cottages should be gone. That's a topic for another day and I don't think it's ever going to happen,” said Allen Woodliffe, a former park naturalist at Rondeau and a former cottage leaseholder concerned about the sale of the land.

“I just can't see that selling it is actually in the good interest of anybody,” he added.

The cottagers argue that the uncertainty of the leases can’t continue. Some have put off important maintenance for years, unsure whether it’s worth the investment. Paint is peeling on the sides of a few.

And so the province is left with an uncomfortable choice, and all the while, a clock keeps ticking towards 2022, when the current set of leases expire.

Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, didn’t answer detailed questions, but said the province will consult Indigenous communities, stakeholders and the public before moving ahead.

“At this point, no decisions regarding the long-term use of private cottage lots in Rondeau Provincial Park have been made,” Wheeler said.

A cottage near Rondeau Bay. The structure was built in 1926 as a model home, but owner Martha Crow Ciupa says she has put off maintenance since it's unclear if cottagers will be allowed to stay. “It's no model home now,” she said. Photo by Emma McIntosh

‘Real tension between the cultural and natural’

About three hours southwest of Toronto, Rondeau sits on a forest-covered sand spit that shelters marshes and a calm bay. The ecosystem is the only one of its kind in Canada.

Attawandaron people ⁠— also known as the Neutral Nation, a name given to them by French settlers ⁠— fished, hunted and foraged on the spit before European settlement. But wars with the Haudeosaunee and diseases like smallpox, introduced by Europeans, took a heavy toll on the population. By the 1650s, survivors assimilated into other nations, like the Seneca.

European settlers logged the spit and developed it for tourism in the 1800s before Ontario converted it into the province’s second provincial park in 1894. (Algonquin, which also has private cottages that have sparked debate, was the first.)

Today, the park’s campground is full of brightly coloured tents on humid summer weekends. One neighbourhood of modest cottages is tucked in along Rondeau Bay; most others are between the campground and the Lake Erie shoreline. In total, they make up less than a per cent of the park’s land.

The grass in front of a few cottages has grown tall ⁠— several leaseholders live in the United States and haven’t been able to cross the nearby border since before COVID-19.

A yacht club sits on the bay side. On the other side is a long stretch of white sandy beach. In between, paths wind through dense forest. The park is home to at least 75 endangered species — the most of any of the province’s parks, noted a 2015 report commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry ⁠— ⁠and is a destination for bird-watchers in a region where most forest cover is already gone.

Rondeau, 1954

Birdwatchers at Rondeau in 1954, right around the time the Ontario government started to change its idea on whether cottages should be in the park. Photo from Archives of Ontario

The cottages have been there since the park was established, with the park’s rules allowing 21-year, renewable leases. Building accelerated in the early 1920s, hitting a peak of 461 by the 1950s.

Back then, the province envisioned Rondeau as a recreational park in contrast to the more wilderness-oriented Algonquin, adding amenities like mini golf. Government staff advertised the cottage lots at events like the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

“There were things that went on in the early days that certainly do not make sense in today's way of thinking,” Woodliffe said.

Even today, Rondeau is beautiful, but not particularly rugged. There are churches in the park and a restaurant at its entrance, all within walking distance of the campground.

Ontario’s early vision of Rondeau is at the heart of the cottagers’ argument for staying: They were invited. And at this point, they feel they’re part of the cultural fabric of the park. To stay, they pay for an annual lease at an average cost of $2,040 per year, service and other fees and park admission.

John Clark, 74, traces his family’s ties to Rondeau back 100 years. One of his ancestors built the road through the park in 1905, he said. Another family member was a park ranger.

Cottagers have phoned for ambulances when campers have emergencies and saved people from drowning on the bay, Clark said. He gives park passes to his kids for their birthdays so they can visit.

John Clark, right, with his family outside their cottage in Rondeau Provincial Park in June 2021. Photo by Emma McIntosh

“Right now I’ve got six grandkids over at my cottage waiting for me,” he said on a Sunday afternoon in June.

The Rondeau community has never been a “bastion for rich people,” Colby said. They want it to stay quaint. Friendships go back generations. Kids ride around on bikes, having campfires and taking swimming lessons at the yacht club.

“People meet their spouses here, raise their kids here,” he said. “Every summer they link up. It's a really unique community that is worth saving.”

In the mid-1900s, however, the government’s idea of what a provincial park should be started to shift.

“Government became more interested in the park as what we might call a conservation area,” said Dan Schneider, a former senior policy adviser with Ontario’s culture ministry who now works as a heritage consultant.

“There came to be a real tension between the cultural and natural, with government on the natural side and cottagers on the cultural side.”

In 1954, the Ontario government stopped approving new cottages in Rondeau. During the 1960s, it started buying up existing cottages and knocking them down with the intent to phase them out entirely. (The province hasn’t exercised the option to buy back properties in several years.)

“When this policy kind of changed in 1954, there began to be the feeling that, well, ‘You don't belong here,’” cottager Keith Graham said.

A lookout onto Rondeau Bay in June 2021. Photo by Emma McIntosh

Good stewards?

A key question at the centre of the debate over what to do with the cottages is whether they help or harm the park.

The cottagers say they love the park’s nature just as much as the environmentalists who want them to leave.

“People claim that we're damaging the environment,” Colby said. “I think if the environment was going to be damaged, it'd be damaged by now.”

The Ontario government has argued otherwise. A 2015 report commissioned by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry found the cottage lots were a “significant and ongoing source of invasive species,” like grass and decorative shrubs, and “are located within or adjacent to fragile ecosystems ranked as imperilled in the province of Ontario.”

“Recreational use of these ecosystems by cottagers and the public has degraded them relative to their natural state and threatens their ecological integrity,” the report added.

Woodliffe, the former park naturalist, said the impact of the cottage lots extends beyond their borders. Pines and oaks that are a backbone of the ecosystem can’t regenerate in the vital area where the buildings are, for example.

“There's a lot of species at risk that would normally occupy that zone of vegetation, things like hognose snakes and five-lined skinks,” he said. “Their populations have declined over the decades.”

The hognose snake began bouncing back when the province started removing cottages, he said. “We can't prove for certain that it's a cause and effect situation, but it's very coincidental,” he added.

Many cottagers are nature lovers, Woodliffe said. But he also suggests they may not understand how much human settlement of the park has altered its environment long-term.

“They just look at, ‘Oh, it's been like this for the last 30 or 40 years since my family's owned the cottage, what's the problem?’” he said

The Rondeau Cottagers Association contests that the park’s ecology might be suffering. It spent $20,000 to commission a water quality study that found no serious issues in the park. And some cottagers argue that work they’ve done benefits Rondeau ⁠— boardwalks they’ve built, for example, ended up as homes for species at risk.

“Nobody's ever been able to prove that cottagers have harmed any part of the environment,” Clark said.

A purple martin, a type of swallow, sits atop a birdhouse along the sand dunes leading to Lake Erie in Rondeau Provincial Park in June 2021. Photo by Emma McIntosh

Proposed deal would see land severed from provincial park

The proposed plan to sell the cottage lots would see them severed from the park and added to Chatham-Kent.

The price of each lot would range from an average of $52,000 to about $129,000, depending on proximity to the water. Chatham-Kent, which would gain a permanent tax base by absorbing the Rondeau cottages, would buy the lots from the province in one transaction and resell them to the current leaseholders. Ideally, the cottagers say, the land would remain subject to strict environmental protection rules.

The cottagers do a lot of business in Chatham-Kent and many are from the community, Mayor Darrin Canniff said. Selling cottagers the land would end the uncertainty and take the leases off the province’s hands.

“We’ve been connected for 125 years,” Canniff said. “We look at it as a win-win-win scenario.”

One precedent for this is in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto and founded in 2005. There are over 500 private properties surrounded by Kawartha Highlands, and the park's charter recognizes the importance of the cottaging community. To compensate for the loss of land, Chatham-Kent proposes to transfer a woodlot larger than the portion of land occupied by the cottagers to Clear Creek Forest Provincial Park, 20 minutes away from Rondeau.

Critics worry selling the land could open it up to larger-scale development than what’s now allowed. The municipality has said it sees the cottages as a heritage feature and would look at low-density zoning.

Graham said he understands why some might feel uneasy about the plan, but he believes adding the woodlot to Clear Creek is a good solution.

“More land is in a provincial park than before,” he said.

Gray, of Environmental Defence, said the woodlot wouldn’t necessarily have the same value.

“The land that they're talking about impacting is within the largest and most important provincial park in Carolinian Canada and home to that long list of rare ecosystems and endangered species,” he said.

Caldwell First Nation, whose traditional territory is near Rondeau, acknowledged a request for comment about the proposal, but didn’t respond by deadline.

Bell said she’d like to see the leases expire when the current leaseholders die, with the cottages phased out over time.

“I think that's a compromise that would be seen as reasonable by most people,” she said.

But the cottagers say they want the cottages to remain in their families. And with the province expected to start consultations soon ⁠— Wheeler didn’t answer when asked about an exact date ⁠— they hope a resolution is imminent.

Losing the Rondeau cottages would be “devastating,” Graham said.

“This is much more than my home,” he said. “It would be a gross, gross error. And who would benefit? Nobody.”