Sauble Beach is located on the western shore of Lake Huron, one of North America’s Great Lakes. It’s a major summer tourist destination in the Province of Ontario, Canada. On a busy summer upwards of 25,000 people will pack the beach and the nearby business community of restaurants, campgrounds, hundreds of rental cottages and other tourism-oriented businesses. Most will come from the cities a couple of hours drive south in Ontario. Sauble Beach is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the area often referred to as Grey-Bruce, after the two counties it includes.
That area, and more, is part of the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which includes the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation and the Saugeen First Nation.
The southern half of the beach is within the land currently reserved for the Saugeen First Nation community. The northern half is part of the Town of South Bruce Peninsula municipality.
But the Saugeen First Nation has long had a claim to the northern portion of the beach, a lawsuit claim based on a survey and survey notes written in connection with a treaty signed more than 150 years ago.
Several years ago federal government officials told a public meeting at the Sauble Beach community centre that the Saugeen claim was a strong one and would likely be successful in court. They recommended a negotiated settlement that would have included a provision for co-management of the beach by the Saugeen First Nation and the non-Aboriginal community of Sauble Beach.
Over the years that community of seasonal and year-round residents, as well as numerous businesses, has grown to become one of the largest virtual towns in Bruce County. The existence of that community is largely based on the presumption, apparently long taken for granted, that the northern part of the beach was not First Nation territory. So, it was not surprising many in that predominantly non-Aboriginal community reacted negatively to the negotiated-settlement proposal; and it went no further.
A few years ago despite the First Nation claim The Town of South Bruce Peninsula began machine-raking the portion of the beach still under municipal management.
The raking was designed to keep the beach looking clean, and maintain an area of sufficient size free of dune grass to accommodate the large summer crowd of sunbathers.
In the spring of 2015 the municipality expanded the raked area to the water-line as well as further into the dunes.
As a result the South Bruce Peninsula now has the dubious distinction of being the only community ever to have had its Blue Flag pulled down, in June 2015, by Environmental Defence, a world-wide charitable organization. The Blue Flag celebrates a high standard of awareness and practice in the protection of special natural sites.
Brett Tryon, program manager for Blue Flag Canada at Environmental Defence, said at the time town officials had been provided “with a lot of scientific evidence and advice from environmental experts, the (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), and ourselves and we urged them to make the right decision,” said Tryon. “Instead they decided to vote in favour of destroying dune habitat and habitat for endangered species.”
South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson said at the time she wasn’t worried about Blue Flag status being pulled from the town.
“Our residents would rather have a clean beach than a Blue Flag above the washrooms,” Jackson said. “I hear the complaints about the state of the beach all the time and I need to listen to everybody, and our council needs to listen to everybody.”
Jackson recently reiterated the town’s defiant intention to rake the beach again as soon as all the piping plovers, an endangered species of bird, have left the beach on their seasonal migration to their southern wintering grounds.
“We’ll go back and do what we did in the spring. We’ll be disking the beach to pull out all the weeds and willow bushes and things like that and pretty much clean it up again,” she said.
If cleanliness is the issue, then there are other ways to deal with it. They may be more labor-intensive and perhaps even costly – like hiring more summer staff to pick up trash left behind after a busy day at the beach, and a public relations campaign stressing, in the nicest way possible, of course, the need to keep the beach clean for the good of all concerned.
But cleanliness – or perhaps the attitude that nature left uncultivated is somehow unclean – is not the issue; neither is an endangered species of little dune-birds, though they certainly have a right to exist.
The real issue driving the destructive raking of the beach is economic. It’s the same old story of local tourist industry, nowhere more urgently felt than in the business community of Sauble Beach: it’s a short season, 10 weeks at best at Sauble; and the more people you can get on that beach, and, therefore, in local cottages, campgrounds, restaurants, and various shopping and amusement venues, the better.
In the 35-plus years I covered and otherwise observed municipal and tourism affairs affecting Sauble Beach, and the rest of the Bruce Peninsula, it often seemed the tourist business was a year-to-year struggle to survive, depending to a large extent on the weather. But this past July was anything but normal in that regard. Tourist operators likely have from now to the Labour Day weekend to make this season pay. So, the bigger the crowds, the better at Sauble Beach. I get it.
Meanwhile, many people – cottagers, year-round residents, and tourists alike – appear to have certain glaring expectations about what a beach is supposed to look like – like something out of an advertisement for a Caribbean resort: above all, lots of pristine sand.
So, based on what I heard Mayor Jackson say recently on a CBC radio morning show, a lot of people did not like what they saw when they got to Sauble Beach this summer: not enough expanse of sand, too much vegetation, not picture-perfect. Some have turned right around and gone elsewhere, like Tobermory.
As if Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula National Park aren’t having their own issues? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.
What to do about the current raking controversy at Sauble Beach should be a no-brainer. It is a precious natural resource that has vitally-important entitlements in its own right. The elements of its wonderous creation are “exceedingly old,” Peter Middleton, a well-known local naturalist and teacher, said at a recent Beach Talk, one of a series sponsored by Bruce Power.
Much of the beach’s “archaic sand” comes from the Canadian Shield and can’t be replenished, Middleton said, as he explained the various challenges facing the future of the beach and its natural environment.
“A well-developed dune system will help conserve the beach,” he said.
“It can be shared. People can enjoy it. We can have dunes. We can have piping plovers,” Middleton said. But he acknowledged the situation is frustrating, while suggesting there’s too much preoccupation with economics.
Indeed. Even giving due regard to economics, it makes no sense at all not to assign the highest priority to preservation of the natural environment and where possible let nature take its course. After all, nature is the basis of local tourism.
Nature does not need to change; we do.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in August, 2017