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Conservation officers: Front line protectors of Ontario’s natural resources

When you think about front line workers during the COVID-19 crisis, conservation officers might not be the first people who come to mind. But according to Ministry of Natural Resources (MNRF) MERC Chair Elaine Bagnall, “Their critical front line work protecting Ontario’s natural resources continues during the pandemic, and they face the same risks as other peace officers who enforce the law.”

Conservation officers work for the MNRF and are members of OPSEU. They enforce laws related to natural resources in Ontario, including wildlife, sport and commercial fishing, hunting, and Crown lands and forests. Additionally, during Ontario’s current COVID-19 state of emergency, they now have the responsibility of enforcing the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.

This brings them into regular contact with the public, even now. Education is part of the conservation officer’s job, ensuring that hunters, anglers, campers and other members of the public know about the laws governing Ontario’s natural resources.

When people do not comply with those laws, conservation officers are responsible for laying charges and collecting physical evidence. They conduct enforcement patrols on waterways and on public and private lands, which brings them into regular contact with the public every day. Their work is often dangerous, which is why conservation officers have personal protective equipment and are the only Ontario Public Service staff who carry a sidearm.

Critical work during the pandemic

As the weather gets warmer, people want to go out and enjoy the great outdoors. However, the current state of emergency has put restrictions on the activities people can do, and it’s up to conservation officers to make sure those restrictions are enforced in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, and focus emergency resources on the pandemic.

For example, up until recently, fire restrictions were in effect across the entire fire region of the province, and recreational camping on all Crown lands remains prohibited during the emergency order.

Trout fishing season opened across southern Ontario in April, and conservation officers were out in full force, ensuring that anglers complied with the fishery regulations, the directions of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, and the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.

The wild turkey and black bear hunting season is open across the province, and the recent opening of the walleye fishing season in northern Ontario is keeping conservation officers busy ensuring the public is following the rules.

In southwestern Ontario, marine unit conservation officers are conducting marine enforcement patrols on the waterways between Ontario and Michigan, which has become even more dangerous during the pandemic. According to OPSEU Local 130 President Kevin Sprague, “We are sometimes within feet of the State of Michigan, and we regularly encounter boats full of Michigan anglers crossing into Ontario waters to fish, which isn’t currently allowed because the border is closed to all non-essential travel.” Michigan has more than twice as many COVID-19 cases as Ontario, and almost two-and-a-half times the number of deaths, as of May 28, 2020.

More conservation officers needed

Fewer than 180 boots-on-the-ground conservation officers are responsible for protecting the natural resources of our vast province. During the 2018 election campaign, Doug Ford’s Conservatives promised to hire more conservation officers to “improve enforcement” and “protect waterways.” Two years later, Ontario is still waiting.

OPSEU calls on Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski to take the protection of Ontario’s natural resources seriously by keeping their election promise to hire more conservation officers.

“OPSEU is proud of the critical work that conservation officers do at all times, but especially now, during the COVID-19 crisis. And we need a lot more of them,” says President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “They, along with so many OPSEU members, are front line heroes.”