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aerial view of Town Island showing area owned by BB Camp; inset - Aaron London, spokesperson for the "Friends of Town Island"

By BERNIE BELLAN
It was just five years ago that we announced the sale of 30 acres of Town Island in Lake of the Woods, which was owned by the City of Kenora, to BB Camp, which had leased a portion of the island since 1954.

 

 

 

 

In our July 9, 2014 issue we wrote: “Council for the City of Kenora announced today they will consider the sale of 30 acres of Town Island to the B’nai Brith Camp (BB Camp) that has existed on this portion of the island for 60 years.
“The sale of this land gives BB Camp the assurance that it will continue as a viable asset to Kenora and Lake of the Woods for children and events for years to come. A restrictive covenant has also been included as part of the offer of sale of the lands to guarantee that there will be no change to the intended use of the property resulting from the sale.”
As we also explained in that article, the purchase of the Town Island campsite – and a good portion of adjoining land as well, only came after an agonizing period of time in which it was not at all clear in which direction the City of Kenora was headed.

BB Camp had been looking for long-term stabili­­­ty for quite some time. Ever since the camp took over the lease for a portion of Town Island in 1952 from what had previously been a Navy Cadet Camp, BB Camp had not been able to negotiate an actual purchase of the land. Instead, the camp had signed a series of short terms leases, beginning with one for 10 years, which expired in 1962, then a 15-year lease, which expired in 2007.
But, as Aaron London, who was the Chair of B’nai Brith Camp’s Community Board back in 2014 (and is now Chair of a group known as “Friends of Town Island”) told us back in 2014, “As our last 15 year lease was set to expire in around 2007-08 the City of Kenora announced plans to subdivide Town Island for cottage development. This would have been a disaster for the Camp. While that decision was eventually averted by a number of factors, as the City contemplated its next move, we were only able to negotiate a two year lease. As a non-profit, it is very difficult to go to your constituents for funding when there is an existential threat hanging over your head.”

Subsequently, however, BB Camp was able to obtain a further 15-year lease in 2012 and, as London told us in 2014, “negotiations for the acquisition started shortly thereafter.”
Eventually, those negotiations proved successful, and BB Camp acquired the 30 acres of Town Island for the sum of $1.1 million.

But, I, myself, was premature in thinking that BB Camp’s problems were now over. At the end of my article I wrote the following: “The conclusion, therefore, is that both the City of Kenora and BB Camp found it to be in their mutual interest to negotiate a sale of the land upon which BB Camp finds itself; that there is now double the amount of land available for BB Camp to expand the camp in the future; and that cottage development will not take place on Town Island.”
Oh, oh – that last part was certainly a mistake, as recent events have now borne out.
Back in September, the City of Kenora proceeded with an “expressions of interest” process for suitable buyers to buy that portion of Town Island that still belongs to the City of Kenora (some 156 acres altogether). That process is to be completed this coming January.

But first, a little history. I was curious to know how the heck the City of Kenora had come to own Town Island in the first place – since Town Island is not actually all that close to Kenora and lies outside its municipal boundary. In researching this article I was given some invaluable help by Braden Murray, who is an educator at the Lake of the Woods Museum.
Murray was able to provide me with information as to how Town Island came to be owned by the City of Kenora, also how the “ratepayers” of what was then the Town of Kenora had turned down an offer by B’nai Brith Camp in 1954 to purchase the entire island for the sum of $15,000.

According to Murray, the municipality of what was then “Rat Portage” acquired Town Island in 1895. The land was acquired from the Province of Ontario for $69.70. The only evidence for the acquisition of Town Island or, as it is referred to in the land title showing ownership by the “municipality of Rat Portage” as “Island D”, is a handwritten land title in the Kenora Land Titles Office (which was researched by someone named Gus Leach of Winnipeg in 2008.)
(By the way, the name “Rat Portage” has nothing to do with rats, it turns out. According to Wikipedia, “The name Rat Portage had its origin in the Ojibwa name Waszush Onigum, which roughly translated, means portage to the country of the muskrats. A shortened and somewhat corrupted version, Rat Portage, was adopted by the Hudson’s Bay Company in naming their post, then located on Old Fort Island on the Winnipeg River.”)

Not much was done with the island for the next few years after its acquisition by Rat Portage, although Braden Murray told me that, in 1905, crews were sent to clear part of the land.
Murray also told me that, following World War I, the townsfolk of Rat Portage were interested in establishing a golf course on Town Island. (A golf course? On an island seven kilometres from Rat Portage?)
When I asked Murray whether he had a clue as to why anyone would want to build a golf course on a remote island – he didn’t have an answer. I suppose that if the intention was to develop the island for cottages, it might have made some sense, but no further development took place there, although the island was surveyed in 1927.

In 1946, however, the “Navy League of Canada” established a camp on Town Island for navy cadets (at what is now the site for BB Camp) known as Camp Ruttan. That camp lasted only five years, however, as it was supplanted by a different camp at Quadra on Vancouver Island.

According to Aaron London though, Camp Ruttan had signed a 15-year lease with the Town of Kenora but, under the terms of the lease, if the camp were to remain vacant for three years it would revert back to the Town of Kenora. That’s when the B’nai Brith Lodge of Winnipeg stepped in.

B’nai Brith took over Camp Ruttan’s lease in 1952 – and BB Camp moved to a new campsite from its previous location in Sandy Hook. And, as has been noted, BB Camp offered to purchase the entire island in 1954, but that offer was rejected.

In clippings sent to me by Braden Murray, he included several letters to the editor of the Kenora Miner from 1954 in which residents of Kenora expressed their reluctance to sell the island. Some writers thought the price was too low while others saw Town Island as a great “recreation spot” that would be ideal for “citizens of the Town looking for fishing, recreation and picnic grounds”.

In 2014, however, when BB Camp expressed an interest in buying all of Town Island – not just the portion on which the camp was located, the City of Kenora turned down the offer.
The reason, according to Aaron London, is that Kenora was interested in swapping the remaining portion of Town Island with the Province of Ontario, in return for which Kenora would have received a parcel of Ontario Crown land either in Kenora itself or adjacent to Kenora.

According to a CBC story, “The City of Kenora had tried unsuccessfully to arrange a land swap with the province of Ontario for several years,” said Adam Smith, Kenora’s Manager of Development Services.
The CBC story goes on to say that “The swap would have seen the island put into a trust in exchange for Crown land closer to the city.
“ ‘We just realized we weren’t making any significant progress, so we decided to go in a different direction,’ Smith said.”

In a 2014 story on a website know as “Kenora Online”, however, it was noted that a spokesperson for the City Council of Kenora said “they (the city council) are committed to preserving Town Island in its current natural state and protecting the fishery and natural habitats on and around the island.”
The same article explained that the City of Kenora was hoping to swap Town Island as part of a program known as “Lands for Life” which was a “program began in 1997 and is a provincial run program that protects designated areas.”

In a September 2019 press release issued by the City of Kenora, however, Adam Smith explained that the Province of Ontario was not interested in pursuing any sort of a land swap with the City of Kenora. The release stated:
“Over the past 10 years, the City has investigated the potential transfer of Town Island in exchange for Crown land of equal value within or adjacent to the City boundaries. The intent was to seek properties for residential and recreational land development within the City. In exchange, the Province would add the Town Island property into its Lands for Life Program, also referred to as the Lake of the Woods Conservation Reserve.

“More recently, the Province has now advised that the former Lands for Life Program is no longer active and they no longer have any interest in acquiring the Town Island property. The Province has advised that the City may purchase surplus properties from the Province as they become available. In order to do so the City needs to have the available financial resources such as the Town Island property to potentially purchase these types of property for development.”

We’ve attempted to contact the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Crown lands in Lake of the Woods, to ask them whether they might reconsider their decision not to swap Crown land in or near Kenora for Town Island, but did not hear back from anyone.

As the CBC noted in its story about the potential sale of Town Island to private developers, Friends of Town Island started an online petition on Sunday, December 8 “to try to convince the City of Kenora to halt its efforts to find a buyer for the island and come up with solutions that will keep the land public.”.
On Friday, December 13, the Jewish Federation lent its voice to the movement seeking to halt the sale of Town Island, when it sent out an email saying “We are asking you as Winnipeg’s Jewish community to join the chorus of voices speaking out against the development of Town Island by signing this petition, and by telling the City of Kenora that you would like to keep Town Island free from future development.”

We asked Aaron London what he thought would result from selling off the rest of Town Island to private developers?
London explained that both BB Camp and Camp Stephens use 10 different sites on the portion of Town Island not occupied by BB Camp for various purposes, including overnight stays for campers. Those sites could well be removed from access by the camps if the land were to be sold to private developers.

As well, London said, private development would likely lead to “more boats, docks, and jet skis, along with water quality concerns and sewage concerns.”

At this point, London reiterated, the hope is that a “public solution” can be found that would satisfy both the City of Kenora and the camps that use Town Island but, London added, “we’re prepared to look at all solutions, including hybrid solutions.”

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