A park in Elgin County dedicated to fallen Canadian Armed Forces peacekeepers is losing its home after the conservation authority that owns the land opted not to renew its lease, but a London lawyer close to the cause says he’ll still fight for the facility to stay.
The Kettle Creek Conservation Authority doubled-down on a decision it made earlier this year to not renew the lease beyond 2020 for Peacekeeper Park, a Belmont-based, non-profit memorial to Canadian peacekeepers that includes an adventure facility.
“They’re cancelling a jewel of Southwestern Ontario,” said London lawyer Phillip Millar, who is providing representation for free to save the park. “It’s a no brainer, everyone wants to support it. It’s a safe haven for veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to go heal.”
Peacekeeper Park was notified in February that its lease on land at Lake Whittaker Conservation Area, north of Aylmer, would not be renewed after this year. Since then, its officials have fought for the conservation authority board of directors to reconsider.
A Kettle Creek staff report sent to the board this week presented two options: don't extend the lease, or offer a one-year agreement that would provide a grace period for Peacekeeper Park officials to address the concerns of conservation authority staff.
At a meeting Wednesday, the board voted 6-3 not to renew the park’s lease.
“This is not personal, this is business,” said Kettle Creek board chair Stephen Harvey.
The park will have all of 2021 to vacate the land, and the board is extending an offer to keep the park’s memorial to fallen peacekeepers, the Path of Honour, on the land.
Harvey said the primary factor in not renewing the lease stemmed from issues relating to park staff's management of the water system at Lake Whittaker.
“We as the landowner share liability with the water system,” he said. “Historically we have asked them to have two technicians who can provide coverage for that water system, and they have struggled to maintain that commitment on their part.”
He said the two parties are “at an impasse” and could not agree on how to manage the water system.
Kettle Creek staff recommended Lake Whittaker's water system be run by a third party.
Peacekeeper Park countered it has three volunteers certified by the provincial government to check water safety — even adding extra certified bodies at the request of the conservation authority this year.
Additional concerns from Kettle Creek staff included a dilapidated house on the land, which would have to be demolished, and communication issues between the two parties.
Peacekeeper Park was started by a group of volunteers in 2002. There are hundreds of crosses on the land as a tribute to those who died in the line of duty.
The park runs summer adventure programs and offers the land for training to cadets, scouts, guides and the local fire department. There is a rock wall, low ropes course, mess hall, four cabins and an abseil tower on the 14-hectare property.
Some 20,000 youth have benefited from the park over the last 19 years, with about 1,000 having special needs.
Harvey said the decision not to renew the lease was made “with a heavy heart,” but added Peacekeeper Park had all of 2020 to address Kettle Creek staff’s concerns.
“It’s very, very unfortunate,” Harvey said. “We are going to be very careful to make sure we honour what they have done as far as the Path of Honour.”
Peacekeeper Park staff and Millar aren’t buying Kettle Creek’s reasoning. They argue all of the conservation authority’s concerns could be easily addressed in 2021.
“This looks like a structured campaign to kill the park by some people on the board that seemed to be tied to revenue masquerading as concerns for water,” Millar said.
Millar said he feels the issue of competition between Kettle Creek and Peacekeeper Park services could have been at play.
Harvey said it was not a factor.
The park’s executive assistant, Sarah Duplisea, called the staff report about issues with Peacekeeper Park “exceptionally biased" and was disappointed the board did not offer the park the one-year grace period.
“That would’ve been absolutely fair and reasonable,” Duplisea said. “We’d been busting our butts to do this wild goose chase they sent us on” to meet requirements.
She said she feels most for the kids and veterans who will be without their camp at the park. She’s unsure whether they will be able to find a new location within the year.
“There’s no longer a safe place for at-risk youth to go, no longer a place for soldiers with PTSD to retreat with their families, and no more memorial to the fallen,” Duplisea said. “Hopefully we have somewhere to go.”
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press