BIRCH LAKE, ONT. ''Maybe I should change my boots,'' the owner of Black Bear Lodge says as the reporter hauls a camera out of the trunk of his car.''I got blood on them -- wouldn't want anyone calling me a murderer, would I?''
It has happened before. A few years ago, Bob Lowe was invited to his daughter Sandra's high school in Sudbury to explain what he does for a living. When he arrived, hand-painted signs were taped to the walls.
For the past dozen years, Bob and Vicki Lowe have run a hunting and fishing operation 15 kilometres up a twisting logging road from the tiny village of Webbwood. Until four years ago, their life was quiet, unnoticed and modestly profitable, right up until the Ontario government banned the spring bear hunt.
And nothing, absolutely nothing, defines the difference between Northern and Southern Ontario better than the spring bear hunt.
This mammoth province, in fact, can be split by the French and Mattawa Rivers, one running west into Lake Huron, the other east to the Ottawa River. They serve as a watery Mason-Dixon line to cut the north off from the south, both physically and psychologically.
Below the line, the issues in the current provincial election are such matters as taxation, education and hydro. Above the line, those issues simmer, but the most heated of all is the 1999 cancellation of the annual hunt and what has happened since.
The spring hunt was stopped after considerable outcry over such ethical questions as bear baiting and the accidental or deliberate orphaning of bear cubs unable to survive without their mother's milk.
The ban, brought in under the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris, had an immediate effect on the northern economy, particularly among those whose fortunes are tied to outfitting. "I lost $30,000," says Bob Lowe. But lately, a brand-new ethical quandary has arisen: What to do about nuisance bears?
The sightings are daily. A year ago, the City of Timmins spent $63,000 removing 300 bears from residential streets and back yards. Shooting them, the ultimate solution, is becoming increasingly common.
"The north is being ravaged by bears," reads an editorial in the North Bay Nugget this week. "Mike Harris won suburbia's blessing by banning the spring bear hunt."
"I voted for Harris," the 56-year-old Lowe says. "I figured he was from the north. He understood."
The Harris government did allow the fall bear season to begin earlier (on Aug. 15 this year), but even that has met with criticism from cottagers who do not want hunting to begin until they have left the lakes and woods for the school year.
A weak berry season has led to increasingly bold bears scavenging for food wherever they can find it, and some residents, discouraged by the slow response of the Ministry of Natural Resources or of the municipalities to complaints, have started to take matters into their own hands. One resident of Redbridge claims to have shot and killed six bears in a recent two-week span.
"A lot of people aren't even calling any more," said Bob Lowe's wife, Vicki. "They're just shooting."
While there are indeed those in the north who do support the ban -- the tribal council representing the First Nations of Manitoulin Island, for example -- a number of outfitters and annoyed citizens are demanding that the government reconsider.
A four-person panel was established last year to study the situation and offer solutions, but it has yet to report, and Premier Ernie Eves has therefore refused to deal with the issue until the facts are known.
Many northerners believe the report has long been finished and was deliberately shelved until after the Oct. 2 election. "We know it's done," says Vicki Lowe, "and it's obvious it will support us."
The reconsideration will have to come quickly for the Lowes if it comes at all. They had trouble renegotiating their mortgage after the ban -- many other outfitters were going under -- and the Black Bear Lodge has been listed for sale.
Bob Lowe was able to turn around his daughter's high school by arguing for responsible hunting and pointing out that the ban has cost millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs, jobs that might allow more young people to stay in the North.
But he has little hope of changing the government's mind. The politicians will do what the majority want, and the majority obviously does not live where the bears are.
"Those people in Toronto," he says, "they tell us, 'You got to learn to live with the bears.'
"Okay, fine. You take two bears and you put 'em in High Park in Toronto and then you tell people in Toronto, 'Now you've got to learn to live with the bears.' No more walking around in the evening. No more letting your children out to play in the park.
"We'll see then who learns to live with the bears."