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Then and Now: Take a walk through history, natural beauty at Champlain Wendat Rotary Park (12 photos)

Park shows what a municipality can do with its waterfront when remediating lands once used for commercial/industrial purposes

It’s hard to believe that the bay at Penetanguishene Champlain Wendat Rotary Park was once used as a dumping ground.

“People used it as a dumping ground before we knew better,” says Nicole Jackson, curator of the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum & Archives.

Today, the 90-acre park filled with trails, an amphitheatre, a skateboard park, one of the best splash-pads and playgrounds for kids around — it looks like a scene borrowed from Peter Pan — is filled with people even in the middle of winter.

That’s partly due to a $3.5-million federal and provincial funding infusion to commemorate when Samuel de Champlain landed in Ontario.

On any given day in the spring and summer, the beach at the park is filled with people, geese, gulls, families of ducks, loons, and if you’re patient, the occasional fish jumping. The only danger they face is from children charging at the birds to see them fly away, and the occasional playful dog.

The natural beauty of the waterfront park is also due to the work of the Severn Sound Environmental Association (SSEA).

Through remediation projects started in the 1990s, what was once a bay with water levels so low you could see logs leftover from a long-defunct logging industry, wildlife and fish habitat have been restored, and the lands are regularly cleared of invasive species.

In 1994, more than 60 shipping containers full (4000 m3) of wood debris was removed from a two-hectare area in the south end of the bay in partnership with the town, local community groups, and the federal and provincial governments.

The following year, a drainage channel was rehabilitated, restoring habitat, bringing fish and wildlife back to the bay. Then in 1999 a stormwater watershed was created to deal with stormwater runoff from the town.

“It was a concerted effort by a lot of different groups and it has resulted in significant habitat and  environmental benefit,” says SSEA wetlands & habitat biologist Michelle Hudolin.

For Hudolin, the benefits of the project go beyond coastal water quality, fish and wildlife habitat restoration, and reducing park maintenance through the establishment of natural habitat. Public participation has been significant.

Increasing awareness of the project for residents and visitors is important for environmental education, says Hudolin.

What is now known as Champlain Wendat Rotary Park was created in 2015 to international interest to celebrate 400 years of Franco-Ontarian history.

“Just because it’s 400 years of francophone history, doesn’t mean it’s just francophone history. 

The Wendat were here then,” says Jackson.

Jackson regularly starts walking tours of the park at the Circle of Nations – an area devoted to honouring the Wendat, and she takes pride in ensuring people understand the land and its first peoples.

“People think of the Wendat as Huron, but that’s a French word referring to a boar’s head,” explains Jackson, noting that educating the public about the rich cultural history of the area is one of the best parts of her job.

It’s one of the reasons that the point and the statue of “The Meeting” — a sculpture commemorating the meeting of Samuel de Champlain and Chief Aenon is important.

“It shows them as equals,” says Jackson, highlighting that this is not the case in many other artistic impressions of that historic moment.

For Jackson, she likes the point because it’s fully accessible.

“I love to see so many people walking around, appreciating the area and soaking in the history,” Jackson says. “It’s right on the bay and the bay’s gorgeous as well.”