October 2007
Restoring the right to walk Erie's shore; Right of passage on Great Lake beaches being denied by some property owners

Posted By adam shoalts

I swung my ash paddle deeper into the warm, aqua coloured waters of Lake Erie and propelled my cedar-strip canoe along at a quick pace.

To my right was white, sandy shoreline and clusters of cottages amid the trees, and on my left was the vast expanse of the world's ninth largest freshwater lake.

Canoeing along the shoreline of Lake Erie is something I find to be highly enjoyable, and when the wind is fierce and the waves large, doubly enjoyable.

However, canoeing is not everyone's cup of tea, particularly on large bodies of water with regular storms. Many people, I suspect, would prefer to take a nice stroll along the shoreline instead.

I admit that some days even I would rather take in the beauty of Lake Erie from the shore than bother with the canoe. But there is a problem with that.

Walking the shorelines of our Great Lakes has become increasingly difficult over the last several decades, as much of it has become fenced-in private property.

This is especially true of Lake Erie, where here in Niagara local residents wanting to walk the beaches often encounter fences or demands to leave by lakefront property owners.

It was not always this way.

For generations, by longstanding convention, anyone wishing to walk along the Great Lakes enjoyed right of passage. That meant anyone was free to pass through privately owned shoreline, they just couldn't stop to picnic or camp.

In the 1990s though this began to change. Some private citizens, who claimed to own property right down to the water's edge, commenced the gradual fencing and in some cases barricading of the beaches in order to keep the public out.

For some time now a campaign to restore the right of passage has been gaining momentum. A few years ago some Fort Erie residents formed Shorewalk, an association devoted to the cause of regaining the right of passage along the Great Lakes.

Shorewalk succeeded in enlisting the aid of local Liberal MPP Kim Craitor, who earlier this year introduced a private member's bill in Ontario's legislative assembly calling for public right of passage access to Great Lakes shorelines.

However, the bill (Bill 43) did not make it past first reading, and now that we have had an election, any bill on this matter will have to be reintroduced.

Fortunately for Shorewalk, Craitor was re-elected and is said to be very committed to this issue.

The principle behind the bill does have some support at the municipal level. Two Great Lakes municipalities, Fort Erie and Cobourg, passed motions endorsing the principle behind Bill 43.

This now defunct right of passage bill could hardly be labelled radical. It simply sought to restore an age-old custom of uninhibited walking rights along the Great Lakes shorelines for everyone.

As a matter of fact, across the border in the United States (where property rights are generally thought to be more entrenched than here in Canada) right of passage legislation has recently been enacted in the state of Michigan in the wake of judicial rulings on the matter.

If Bill 43 had passed, Canadians would merely have enjoyed the same shoreline access that Americans already possess in Michigan.

The proposed Bill 43 did not grant the public the right to picnic or camp on private beaches, only the right of passage. Nor did it permit for motorized vehicles to travel across private property.

It did not even go so far as to permit sunbathing on the beaches in question - strictly right of passage on foot.

I therefore do not think this is too much to ask for: right of passage along the Great Lakes is something that should be restored to everyone.

These immense "freshwater seas" are a natural wonder without parallel anywhere else in the world, and as such should be open to all.

Adam Shoalts is a member of The Tribune's Youth Editorial Board. His website is www.adamshoalts.com.


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