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Fallen on desperate times, an Ontario summer camp opens its cabins to migrant workers

Housing migrant workers during their quarantine barely scratches the surface of Pearce Williams Summer Camp and Retreat Facility's expected revenue loss.

With no campers, Pearce Williams took 31 migrant workers on quarantine

Summer camps, that would make up about a third of Pearce Williams' annual revenue, are cancelled because of the pandemic. (Submitted by Joe Richards)

A London area summer camp fallen on hard times has resorted to filling its empty cabins with migrant workers serving mandatory quarantines just to keep itself financially afloat through the pandemic. 

Pearce Williams Summer Camp and Retreat Facility normally relies on campers, school programs and retreats as its bread and butter. Without them, the registered charity in Fingal, southwest of St. Thomas, expects to lose $500,000 of its $650,000 annual revenue this year. 

"The pandemic has been hard. Really, really hard,"  said Joe Richards, the camp's executive director. "I'm not sure the future is fully rosy."

That pessimism is being echoed by the Ontario Camps Association. The industry group representing 450 camps in the province estimates roughly 40 per cent of its members could close by next spring without some form of government support. 

Camp takes on migrant workers to make ends meet

Pearce Williams has started filling its cabin bunks left empty by the coronavirus crisis with migrant workers instead of campers.

It took a month of preparations with the help of Southwestern Public Health just to house 31 migrant workers, 10 Jamaicans from a Strathroy-area factory and another 21 from Trinidad and Tobago, who were working at a Norfolk County farm.

Thirty-one migrant workers quarantined in cabins, like these ones, at Pearce Williams. (Supplied by Joe Richards)

For their two-week stay, Richards charges $1,000 per worker. The revenue goes to paying fixed costs, such as insurance, property taxes and utilities.

However, as Richards himself wrote about out in a July 24 blog post, it "will not save Pearce Williams."

It's why the camp is looking to raise $250,000 to cover its debts.

"Parents paid us for camp and we didn't give them camp," said Richards. "We owe money back to parents, and that money doesn't sit in a bank account, that money gets spent getting ready for camp and everybody's salaries."

According to the Ontario Camps Association, its 450 members usually spend about 40 per cent of their expenses before camp season begins and the other 60 per cent during, including staff wages. 

Joe Richards, the executive director of Pearce Williams Summer Camp and Retreat Facility, describes the organization's financial situation as "desperate" in a blog post. (Submitted by Joe Richards)

There are four staff members at Pearce Williams this year. All have agreed to accept a 25 per cent wage cut.

Their entire salaries are being covered by the government's wage subsidy program, and if that subsidy runs out – Richards said they'll be laid off.

Although Richards is "nothing but optimistic," he said he faces some tough decisions if the camp doesn't meet its fundraising goal.

Those options include allowing the camp's property tax to lapse for the allowable two years and shutting everything down to get the balance sheet as close to zero operational costs as possible. 

Camps weave cultural fabric

The Ontario Camps Association has lobbied the federal and provincial governments for $236 million dollars worth of grants and loans, money it says will save the industry. 

Mark Diamond, vice president of the Ontario Camps Association, says they're asking the provincial and federal governments for $236 million to help the industry. (Supplied by Mark Diamond)

The industry group's vice-president, Mark Diamond said camps also want the federal wage subsidy extended by at least another year to help provide badly needed summer jobs. 

"[Camps] contribute $2 billion to the economy across Canada. They contribute 70,000 jobs, usually first time jobs, to young people," he said. 

Both levels of government have been receptive and Diamond said he's "cautiously optimistic." 

"When 2 million kids across Canada go to camp … those kids learn Canadian values. They learn stewardship of the environment. They learn critical emotional intelligence skills. They learn how to deal with insurmountable mental health challenges," he said. 

"If there's no help from the government, and 40 percent of camps in Ontario do close, that's about 500,000 children that will never go to camp again." 

Diamond described it as a loss for the children, the economy, but also for the country – because, in his words, the industry "literally is creating the cultural fabric of our nation." 

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