Ontario Ranger Program: Cutting ‘the best summer of my life’ for generations to come?

Emily Harris-McLeod

What motivates the decision to cancel a public program that is successful, time-tested and inexpensive, yet so appreciated as to earn exuberant testimonials year after year?  This is the question I pose to the Ministry of Natural Resources, which has just announced the axing of its iconic and broadly adored Ontario Ranger Program.

If while walking in a provincial park, you have happened upon a crew of teenagers wearing yellow hard hats and wielding hand tools, you’ve witnessed the ‘junior rangers’ in action. Every summer since 1944, the Ranger program has been employing 17-year-old Ontarians to spend 8 weeks in far-flung camps across the province, earning minimum wage to do work like clearing trails, planting trees and maintaining canoe routes. The 13 single-sex camps operate on strict rules, limiting cell phones, forbidding drugs and alcohol, mandating kitchen duty, and enforcing early nights and early morning work starts. Each camp comes together as a diverse and sometimes motley crew of 25 strangers.  Having been chosen entirely by a postal-code based lottery, they are a group of neither exceptional talent nor exceptional need, but a veritable cross-section of this province’s youth.

Initial reactions to the close quarters, myriad rules, hard work and remote setting can involve alarm and dismay.  But this is a program that works a reliable kind of magic. When the season ends, the sense of accomplishment is palpable, both with the physical work, and with the internal transformation evident in the group.  The rangers (and their parents) employ terms like independence, responsibility and maturity to describe the change.  They mention their ability to live and work in close quarters with others, a surprised gratitude for the time in nature, and the familiar assertion that “It was the best summer of my life”.

What the Ontario government has on its hands here is a historic public program that continues to vastly surpass its own official goals. The Rangers was created as an employment experience program to assist youth in pursuing natural resource management careers – something it continues to do very successfully.  Largely by accident, it has also proved surprisingly effective in a range of other public priority areas.

Yet herein lies a problem.  The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has a small and declining budget – it currently receives less that a half a penny from each dollar of Ontario’s public spending (compared, for example, to Health at around 38 cents per dollar) and has been further required to cut spending by 10%.  From the narrow viewpoint of the MNR’s budget, the decision to axe Rangers is more understandable.  After all, youth employment is a secondary mandate for the MNR, and the smaller, watered-down alternative they have proposed (hiring groups of four youth to work from their own home town on a 9-5 basis) can attempt to fulfill this mandate more cheaply.

But what is lost in this calculation is Rangers’ unique contribution to a web of other important public goals.  For example, the mandates of a half dozen other ministries are aided by the program’s established success in:

  • Preparing youth to become responsible, independent and productive adults (Ministry of Children and Youth Services)
  • Assisting youth to acquire the skills they need to enter and progress through the workforce (Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities)
  • Fostering communities and economies in Northern Ontario. (Ministry of Northern Development and Mines)
  • Providing hands-on educational opportunities that are complementary to core curriculum. (Ministry of Education)
  • Fostering an appreciation for and knowledge of environmental issues. (Ministry of Environment)
  • Encouraging physical activity and healthy lifestyles among young people. (Ministry of Health and Long Term Care)

What is the worth of Rangers’ ongoing success in these areas? A precise figure is impossible, but we can be sure it is worth many times over the loosely estimated $1.6 million in savings from cutting the program.  To put that figure in context, consider that on such terms, eradicating Ontario’s deficit would mean axing the equivalent of almost 10,000 programs of similar size. In reality we don’t have those 10,000 programs to cancel, but my fear is that this type of death-by-a-thousand-cuts could even be considered a viable approach to the serious work of deficit reduction.

Let’s replace this piecemeal approach with a more integrated vision.  And let’s reconsider the regrettable situation where the very success of a program like Rangers at producing spill-over benefits to multiple policy areas leaves it underappreciated and vulnerable in a public sector divided into individual ministries that are all under pressure to efficiently adhere to ‘core mandate’.

The public sector, having been on the defensive for decades in an era of free market ascendency, has come to increasingly speak this language of efficiency, core mandate, business modernization, and the like.  It’s an important language, to be sure, but also one that can hold us to a logic of minimizing negatives, while obscuring our recognition of excellence.  It is only when we also take an enlarged view, and speak the language of integrated public vision, legacy, pride, investment and ‘best summer of my life’, that we can really appreciate the insanity in throwing away a historic success like this to avoid paying what amounts to pennies in the scope of our public spending.

A cynical view of public programs informs us they are the domain of rent-seekers, supported by those who stand to materially gain.  But witness the heartfelt support for a program like Rangers from people with no material stake in its survival. I was fortunate to be a ranger in 1995, and although years have passed since my involvement with the program, what I learned there continues to have a powerful effect on my appreciation for this province and my sense of what is possible in a public program. Each summer since I left Rangers, I have been heartened to know that new cohorts are inhabiting those rustic camps, and discovering similar joy in the hard work, night swimming and northern lights.  I recall how being introduced to this province’s vast north for the first time, like so many other southern Ontario teens, gave me a deeper sense of place.  In a world purportedly flattened by globalizing markets, the importance and power of such a sense of place is undervalued, and so the program’s success in this area is perhaps overlooked.  But I am aware, like thousands of other past participants, that there is something special being accomplished by this program – and that it’s something we should allow to continue.

So let’s preserve the Ontario Ranger Program. Let’s preserve this iconic program as a public achievement that’s greater than the sum of its parts and the goals of its mandate, and which instills confidence and pride in our youth and our province.  It will take more than just the MNR.  It will take attention and an integrated vision from elsewhere in the public sector, and recognition for how this program has been successfully bridging the traditional divisions of policy mandates.

Ontario Rangers has been a synergistic example of public programming excellence, and awesomeness, for almost seven decades.  Instead of tossing that away, it’s time to recognize this program as a legacy that Ontario can – and should – proudly preserve.

Emily Harris-McLeod is a 2013 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  She holds a BSW from McGill University and MSW from Carleton University, and has ten years experience as a social worker.  In 1995, Emily was an Ontario Ranger at Esker Lakes Provincial Park; she returned for the next eight summers as a staff member and supervisor of the camp.

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10 responses to “Ontario Ranger Program: Cutting ‘the best summer of my life’ for generations to come?

  1. I love how you connected the different goals of the program to various ministries – that was very persuasive. I admit I had not heard of this program before (and initially read the point as “Power Rangers, which was terribly exciting) but am supportive of continuing it. Helping young Canadians see & serve our vast nation can’t be under-valued. My sister is 16 (soon to be 17) and I could imagine her benefiting from the Rangers.

  2. I seem to go along with every aspect that ended up being posted inside “Ontario Ranger
    Program: Cutting ‘the best summer of my life’ for generations to come?
    Public Policy and Governance Review”. Thanks for pretty much all the actual information.
    Thanks a lot,Kellee

  3. I was a Junior Forest Ranger at Semi-white lake north of Elliot Lake in 1970. I was just checking out the area on Google earth and that lead me to find out about the camp today. I am devastated to find out the ranger program has been eliminated. It brought me to tears. That was the best summer of my life and lead me into a career in forestry.All these years later I am now a park ranger in BC and I still use the skills I learned back then. Cutting this program is a very big mistake.

    • Mark, please consider researching who the current government reps are in the Semi – White Lake area, including the municipal representatives from the nearest community and newspaper editors and radio and TV news stations and send them a note, or, send them a copy of Emily’s article along with whatever pics you have of the area, some information about the FORP website, petitions and the meeting on Sept 24th and they may consider it newsworthy, especially if you can put a slant on it as to why the issue should be of local interest to them. Or if you have any ties to communities in southern Ontario, maybe do something similar. Most of the 2012 camps were in NDP territory, so, it’s really the Liberals in Southern Ontario that we need to convince. This is what I know…the MP in my home area, John Vanthof will be at the meeting on the 24th. My federal member here in Halifax, Megan Leslie, the NDP Environment critic was raised in Kirkland Lake, used to work at Esker Lakes, and is doing what she can to support the program. Please view the YouTube video book review “Unlikely Radicals”. Hopefully Charlie Angus, the federal NDP rep for Temiskaming/James Bay will also support. The Kirkland Lake News will be running an article on the program in the next week or so, based on Emilys’ note, and my facebook page blog and area pictures.
      Robert Bateman, the artist, who is from Ontario, lives out on Salt Springs Island and supports the Environment. He was one of the founders of “The Bruce Trail”. He also advocates for youth programs. His mailing address is online. Please consider contacting him.

  4. I was a JR at Esker Lakes in ’61, the year the JR camp was built. Was wondering if the buildings still exist as I’d like to visit this summer. Any response would be helpful. Thanks.
    Doug Morgan

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