Bruce Hyer on the Wabakimi wilderness

Back Roads Bill recently interviewed Bruce Hyer. He plans a spring canoe trip with the renowned conservationist; maybe to Cliff Lake, a favourite Wabakimi destination of Back Roads Bill

Jan 20, 2021 2:30 PM By: Bill Steer

Find your Ontario Road Map in the glove compartment, unfold it to the important side, Northern Ontario, and look at those large green spaces contrasting the white background riddled with countless blue shapes and elongated, wiggly blue lines.

Quetico Provincial Park sticks out on the Ontario/Minnesota border, Woodland Caribou on the Ontario/Manitoba border and Polar Bear on the Hudson and James Bay and there are glimpses of Algonquin Provincial Park at the far SE, right corner of the map. Then there is the second largest park in Ontario, Wabakimi just north of Lake Nipigon, almost smack dab in the middle of northwestern Ontario where there are few communities.

What do Survivorman, Back Roads Bill and Bruce Hyer have in common?

We are not the three Bears from Goldilocks. Well, Les Stroud became Survivorman because he and his wife, Sue, stayed in the Wabakimi wilderness for a year (1994) of solitude living like cave dwellers and his persona was created. ‘Snowshoes and Solitude’ is the incredible story of Les and Sue’s year in the Wabakimi wilderness; it “put the area on the map,” so to speak. It chronicles the struggles and triumphs of their daily lives and their burning love and respect for the natural world.

After a long wait, Back Roads Bill recently travelled this extraordinary wilderness area by canoe. More importantly, Bruce Hyer created it as a protected, provincial park area and that’s why it is on the map. It is his idea.

Hyer is the only person to have twice received the prestigious Conservation Trophy from the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. Wabakimi is twice the size of P.E.I. and Yellowstone National Park. Respectively said, it is good to speak to someone who is alive and well, has made a discernible difference that you can see spatially.


Wabakimi Provincial Park (WPP) is a world-class canoeing and recreational area in the heart of Northwestern Ontario. The name comes from the roots found in the Ojibway words Waubishkaugimi meaning “white-water.” Home of the elusive woodland caribou, and renowned for its high-quality fly-in fishing it is the world’s largest Boreal Forest reserves and wilderness canoeing areas. The park waterways have been travelled for centuries by the Ojibway and most portages in the region have evolved from this historic use. Ancient campsites, artifacts and pictograph (rock painting) sites found throughout the park tell some of the Wabakimi stories.

Almost twice the sizes of Quetico Provincial Park, not all canoe routes are maintained and some areas receive less frequent maintenance than others. There are no signs showing the location of portages in the park, and trail conditions vary considerably. On some routes and portages, navigation can require skill with map and compass and the GPS really helps. Canoeists travel these water routes and follow the limited route descriptions at their own risk.

Originally established in 1983, WPP was expanded almost six-fold in 1997, bringing the park to its current size of 892,061 hectares (8,920 square kilometres, 3,444 square miles, or almost 2.3 million acres). It is now the second-largest park in the Ontario Parks system (the largest is Polar Bear Provincial Park). Within this vast, virtually-road less wilderness are more than 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) of historically- and culturally-significant canoe routes. Really big lakes abound, but WPP is known for its many rivers. Within the park are the Allanwater and the Ogoki, and along the boundaries are the Albany, Brights and, and Kopka rivers. There are several lodges and outpost camps, but no roads, so you can paddle in, fly-in, or even ride in on the Canadian National Railway that runs between Savant Lake and Armstrong.

Bruce Hyer

We know him as a well-intended politician. Bruce Hyer was first elected as a New Democrat in 2008, left the NDP caucus in 2012 after a row with the party related to his support for ending the long-gun registry, then sat as an independent. He joined the Green Party in December 2013 and was named deputy leader shortly after, becoming the second-ranked official in a caucus of two.

Before that, Bruce is an ecologist, forester, and businessperson.

An “American by chance, Canadian by choice,” he was born in the state of Connecticut where he worked as a police officer, was a member of the USA Ranger Reserve Officer Training Corp, and was a state coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970.

After graduating university, he helped to create the first Department of Environmental Protection in the USA, where he served as a Senior Environmental Analyst. He played a key role in Connecticut in developing legislation and regulations banning DDT and the Dirty Dozen pesticides, an Agricultural Lands Act, protective zoning for wetlands and stream-belts, effluent charges for air and water pollutants, and fostering renewable energy.

For many decades, Hyer’s vocation was as a wilderness guide, leading trips through Canada’s remote boreal and Arctic regions. Bruce received his Master of Science in Forestry from Lakehead University in 1997.

In 1976, Hyer moved to northern Ontario to start WildWaters Nature Tours & Expeditions Ltd, which has run a variety of wilderness adventures and eco-tours from bases near Armstrong and what is now Wabakimi Provincial Park (WPP).

While starting that business, he lived for several years in the wilderness, many kilometres from the nearest road, mainly on wild foods. He worked as a contract moose biologist for the then Ministry of Natural Resources.

After moving to Thunder Bay to start a retail business, he instructed in the Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism Department at Lakehead University, as well as teaching log building for Confederation College in remote northern first nation communities.

As a bush pilot, he aerially tracked and collared caribou for three years as part of a large research project on the impacts of human activities on Woodland Caribou.

One high-profile initiative was Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, which NDP leader, Jack Layton asked Hyer to introduce as a Private Members Bill.

After more than a year of arduous stickhandling through Parliament, it passed third and final reading in the House in the 40th Parliament on May 5, 2010. Bill C-311 would have required the Minister of the Environment to implement measures to ensure that Canada reduces its absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

It would have introduced greater government accountability by requiring the Environment Minister to prepare 5-year target plans starting in 2015 and report on progress every two years.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hyer has the dubious honour of being the proponent of the only Bill in Canada’s political history to be passed by the elected House but ordered killed by the Prime Minister in the unelected and unaccountable Senate before any witnesses could be heard or debate was held.

Wabakimi – The Idea

Because of his passion for the Wabakimi area, he knew the area had to be protected; it was a journey of presentations, lobbying and advocacy. 

“It was my idea in 1978 I spent 25 years of my life and a LOT of my own money creating it,” he said. “I showed slides to ministers. I showed slides to politicians. I showed slides to the Parks Council. I showed slides of bedrock, moss, caribou, and waterfalls to the FON and the Sierra Club. Eureka! Ron Reid and Rick Simms gathered kindred spirits Janet Grand and George Luste and showed up at my Shawanabis Lake cabin for a two-week trip. There really was an undiscovered wilderness gem northwest of Armstrong!”

He said they gained traction with the interest of the like of World Wildlife Fund’s Monte Hummel and the Algonquin Wildlands League’s Arlin Hackman.

“They connected me to Thunder Bay’s indomitable Bill Addison and Dave Bates, and the quietly effective naturalists Mike and Sue Bryan. The network was building, and into the mélange was thrown a new provincial minister, Alan Pope.

“Where many ministers are led around by the nose by their deputies, Pope was different. He trampled bureaucrats mercilessly and connected directly and privately not just with multinational companies but with trappers, and outfitters, and parks advocates.

“He played his cards close to his chest, but when the smoke cleared in 1984, Ontario had dozens of new parks, including a couple of new wilderness areas all through the ‘Lands for Life’ process.”

It was a quantum leap, but all the news wasn’t entirely good. Some site regions were represented inadequately or not at all.

“I have two babies my daughter and the evolution of the park,” Hyer said. But, he remains miffed that “there is no park management plan after 38 years – only an interim statement.”

You know it is wilderness when you arrive at what you think is a campsite and there are young saplings growing in the small fire pit. That is the kind of wilderness you will find in Wabakimi.

Not many, (approximately 700 paddlers) enter this wilderness in any given year. 

“You are more likely to see a caribou than a canoeist,” Bruce says.

He is glad the pandemic has changed the user profile of visitors from more visitors from south of the border to more Canadians, though. 

“Canadians discovered the park this year?” he said.

He founded the park, it is a legacy.

“By my criteria, it is far wilder than Quetico and infinitely wilder than Algonquin,” Hyer said. “It’s just plain &^&%$#$$ beautiful!”

And it is.

Stay the course, the days are getting longer open water is not too far away.

About the Author: Bill Steer Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre Read more

Correction: Bruce has a son, not a daughter.