By John Swartz
The Huronia Cultural Campus is no more. At least the name is gone. Board chair Fred Larsen announced at Saturday night’s performance of Drew Hayden Taylor’s Cottagers and Indians at St. Paul’s Centre effective Feb. 1 the group will be known as the Orillia Centre for Arts+Culture (OCAC).
“The Huronia Cultural Campus was born in the vision of the Huronia Regional Centre being converted into an artistic campus kind of thing. Unfortunately, 4 years later we’re no further ahead with that. We are much farther ahead in terms of having establishing partnerships here in Orillia,” Larsen told SUNonline.
“We want to celebrate that and I think Orillia Centre for Arts+Culture does that.”
The change recognizes two things. The province has been dragging its feet making a decision on what to do with the 175 acre Huronia Regional Centre, and there has been some consternation by First Nations people about the word Huronia.
“I don’t know if you picked up over the last couple years, there’s been some local First Nations discomfort with the term Huronia,” said Larsen.
“We were working pretty closely with them over the last couple years and every time we put our name in front of them, it’s a reference to a name from 400 years ago.”
The HCC has presented three programs in Rama over the last two years (as recently as Friday last week). They have also met with the Chippewas of Rama band council several times and they made it known the word Huron was a sore spot.
“The point he made was the Hurons were here a long time ago,” said Larsen. The Hurons moved away from this area in the 1650s not long after Champlain’s visit. Ojibwe people settled in shortly after.
The Road To Here
The desire to acquire the HRC land for an arts center was broached by this writer in 2011, and in 2013 Charles Pachter had the same idea, gathering together a number of interested people from the community, along with some notable people from Toronto to form a committee.
Ever since, the powers at Queen’s Park have been waffling back and forth about letting the HRC land go.
“We started out looking at the whole piece of property there, including the buildings, except for the building as that were being used. It was our impression back in 2014/15 the whole 240 acres might be available. Then over the next couple years the center core of buildings were removed from the plan for releasing some of the property. Then all of the buildings were red penciled around and just the vacant property was available,” said Larsen.
The province initiated a public consultation (Consultation on the future of the Huronia Regional Centre Campus land – 2016) and published a report.
“The province never did respond with any kind of decision based on that consultation, nothing we could see,” said Larsen. Part of the reason for lack of movement was a question regarding whether the HRC land would figure into the Williams Treaty settlement.
Then the government changed hands and the OCAC board was left more in the dark.
“We’ve had our meetings with (MPPs) Jill Dunlop and Doug Downey early in the fall and said we’d very much appreciate help finding out what the province’s plans are for this piece of property,” said Larsen.
Recently the province announced a plan to sell a number of properties; the HRC land was not on the list. Larsen said OCAC is trying to arrange a meeting with government and consumer services minister Bill Walker.
“I think we deserve a little bit of clarification here,” said Larsen.
As recently as January’s Orillia municipal budget meetings, some councillors were asking what the plan is now. The board had made a submission to have an unused 2018 grant of $25,000 dollars directly related to any work on acquiring the HRC the HCC/OCAC group would do carried forward to 2019’s budget in case the province made the HRC available. The money was unused in 2018 because the province remained silent on the land. Additionally, a previous commitment for the City to grant $150,000 toward a feasibility study if the lands were in play was not moved into 2019 either, though council did say it was purely to not tie up so much money and council was quite willing to entertain both grants in the future should the land be available.
Despite no action on the HRC land, the HCC, as it was, did not waste time producing a number of concerts and events. They formed partnerships with Rama, Lakehead University and St. Paul’s Centre for those events, and will be utilizing them again. There is an event happening in June and OCAC has had ongoing negotiations with Lakehead University for a more tangible partnership, which may include locating at the West Ridge campus.
“That would be in lieu of,” getting the HRC said Larsen. “If the province says, hey you can have 100 acres of the HRC property, we would say, that would be a very nice location as well.”
Regardless of the outcome on the HRC land, Larsen thinks the new identify reflects more accurately what has transpired with their current activity – minus a home – which will be ongoing even if they do get the HRC land, and will give the public a better sense of what the organization is about.
“If we were going to give it a name, we wanted a name that was modern and looking forward, and frankly it’s the community of Orillia that has been the focus,” said Larsen.