A popular summer destination in southwest Nova Scotia is set to become the first Parks Canada campground with gender-neutral washrooms, part of the federal agency's $3-billion plan to upgrade outdated facilities at national parks and other sites across the country.
Renovations planned for Kejimkujik National Park include building a new water-treatment plant, refitting waste-water facilities, and installing more universal facilities to replace 10 old washroom buildings and an old shower building that were installed back in the 1960s.
The work means the park's front-country campground, which has several hundred campsites, will be closed for the 2020 camping season. Construction will begin this fall, after Kejimkujik wraps up its 50th anniversary camping season, and continue until spring 2021.
"We're designing for the next 50 years," said Jonathan Sheppard, site superintendent for Kejimkujik. "We're also doing design that's actually kind of socially progressive."
Sheppard said the cost of the Kejimkujik renovation project won't be known until the tendering process is complete.
An artist rendering of the design that will replace Kejimkujik's aging facilities shows a new washroom building with a natural, modern look.
According to Parks Canada, all the new buildings will include a common, universal hallway space with five individual rooms instead of stalls. The washrooms will each have a toilet, sink, grooming area and lockable doors. There will also be three shower rooms.
Signs on the washrooms will indicate what equipment is behind each door rather than labelling or designating who can use each space.
"Instead of having a male or female sign, we're having a sign that says a shower or a toilet," Sheppard said. "So it's much more inclusive and welcoming to people that are coming all across the gender spectrum."
In coming up with the design for Kejimkujik's gender-neutral washrooms, Parks Canada consulted the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, a group that seeks equity, justice and human rights for LGBTQ people in Nova Scotia.
Susanne Litke, chair of the group's education committee and an outdoor enthusiast who has camped, hiked and paddled at Kejimkujik, said Parks Canada has taken a "very important" first step in making the park more inclusive for all people.
"I think the change will mean that more folks from the trans and gender-variant communities will be more comfortable in our park," Litke said. "It will mean we'll be more of a rainbow community together camping."
However, she believes more needs to be done, such as inclusion training for staff members to have a deeper understanding of the LGBTQ community.
"You just can't hang a sign and say 'We're a trans-friendly space' because you have gender-neutral bathrooms. There are other things that go along with making that space safe."
In 2018, about 65,000 people visited Kejimkujik. Of those visitors, about 70 percent camped at Jeremy's Bay Campground, which features 360 front-country campsites, including 10 soft-sided oTENTik shelters and rustic cabins.
When the front-country campground closes for the 2020 camping season, revenue loss for the region is projected to be about $1.2 million, even though 52 backcountry sites and the park's day-use areas, including hiking trails and beaches, will remain open.
"We really did not want to close the campground for a season," said Sheppard.
But he said other options assessed — such as phased construction, construction during the off-season and construction with the campground open — were deemed not safe enough or efficient enough to pursue.
To mitigate economic impacts, Parks Canada has struck a steering committee and is working with the North Queens Board of Trade, the South Queens Chamber of Commerce, and the Region of Queens Municipality.
David Dagley, mayor for the Region of Queens Municipality, said while he applauds efforts to modernize Kejimkujik's campground, he has concerns about the effect on sales for businesses in North Queens.
"It has an impact on grocery stores that provide food supplies to campers. There would be restaurants that would see decreased activity," said Dagley. "So we want to maintain the numbers of visitation as high as we can."
To keep visitors numbers from declining, Parks Canada is looking to bring its picnic program into the community, with the idea that local restaurants could provide pre-boxed lunches to people still participating in any of Kejimkujik's day-use activities.
Other plans include the launch of a new trail system alongside the Mersey River at Kejimkujik, and encouraging residents, campgrounds and other tourist operators to provide alternative camping or accommodations to Jeremy's Bay Campground.
Parks Canada plans to provide Kejimkujik visitors with a list of alternate places to stay in the area, in advance of the 2020 camping season