You are here

Bala Falls Cultural Landscape


A sensitive green energy project that could destroy the landmark Bala Falls is pushing ahead without an individual Environmental Assessment.

Why it matters
Carved out of the Canadian Shield, Bala Falls is located at the west end of Lake Muskoka (approximately two hours north of Toronto) where the lake’s waters spill into Moon River and eventually into Georgian Bay. Part of an important cultural landscape, the falls are a physical landmark that define Bala’s identity and which are central to its recreational and tourism-based economy. The historically important Portage Landing on the north side of Burgess Island has been a portage point for First Nations and later for the community of Bala, tourists, YM-YWCA campers and cottagers. The landmark boat livery business, Purks Place has operated continuously since 1906. It is historically interconnected with the portage landing on the west of Burgess Island for water access to Moon River. The only other structure on Burgess Island is the Stone Church, designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Why it’s endangered
In December 2004, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources released an RFP for the development of a hydroelectric generating station on approximately one hectare of Crown land adjacent to Bala’s north dam as part of the province’s green energy program. Swift River Energy Ltd (SREL) proposes to build a 4-5 megawatt run-of-river water power facility that will include:

  • the excavation of an approach channel immediately above Bala’s North dam;
  • the installation of an intake and a concrete powerhouse structure abutting the north Bala falls;
  • a tailrace channel to return water to the Moon River some 40 metres from the base of the North dam’s waterfall.

Community concerns are focused on the conservation of the natural features of the falls central to Bala’s identity and its natural resources (water and water flow, foraging and spawning habitat for fish and invertebrate species, and identified heritage trees) as well as its cultural features. Concern is also focused on potential damage to the Stone Church related to blasting shock and vibration.  

Where it stands

Worried about inconsistent information, the mayor and a hundred citizens’ request that the Environmental Scanning Process be elevated to an individual and independent Environmental Assessment was turned down by the Ministry of the Environment. In May, that decision was upheld by the Minister, Jim Bradley.  With that news, SREL abandoned a possible Option 2 plan that located the powerhouse some 100 feet south of the north Bala falls, and issued an addendum that the original option will be pursued with a deadline for comments set at June 29. A request for an extension was denied.

August, 2013

A Judicial Review that could potentially stop planned development on Crown land at North Bala Falls took place on August 19, 2013 in Toronto. The Township of Muskoka Lakes commenced the action against the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) in April (a Judicial Review looks at decisions by government bodies to see if they comply with laws governing those actions – in this case, the move by MNR to issue a waterpower lease agreement).

Three judges will hear from the lawyers for the Township, the MNR and Swift River Energy Limited (SREL), the company proposing to build a hydro plant on Crown land at North Bala Falls. The Township is arguing that the Public Lands Act protects traditional portages from development that could hinder passage on Crown land. It is seeking a permanent injunction to stop the MNR from issuing any waterpower lease agreement on the site. The MNR has said the Act gives it ultimate responsibility for public safety – and that areas around dams are unsafe for recreational activity.

The lawsuit was dismissed.

During a special meeting held September 3, 2013, Muskoka Lakes countil voted five to four in favour of appealing the August19 Divisional Court decision to dismiss a judicial review the township launched against the Ministry of Natural Resources on April 9 for its decision to proceed with permits for the development of a hydroelectricity plant at Bala Falls.

Latest Update:

In July 2014, the Muskoka township lost a court bid to recognize the public’s right to portage at Bala Falls. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled “that the protection of public safety trumps canoeists’ access to portages and shorelines on Crown land”.

Had the appeal court ruled in the township’s favour, the Ontario government would have been unable to disturb the portage, halting the proposed hydroelectric project.

On August 28, 2014, the Wahta Mohawks First Nation staged a “Portage-In” to protest the federal and provincial governments’ failure to fulfill their “Duty to Consult”, regarding a site that has historical and cultural significance to the First Nations. For more information, click here

On April 21, 2015 Town Council denied the motion to allow SREL to lease the heritage designated township property. However, construction staging will now take place in the adjacent Margaret Burgess Park. Meanwhile, SREL has indicated that it has obtained all necessary construction permits and that construction will begin following final approval by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which could occur as soon as July 1st of this year. 

In July, Rob Stewart and Jonah Bryson released a short doc examining the threat to Bala Falls. 

In October, students from Oakville, Ontario's Holy Trinity Secondary School environment club released a music video to raise awareness about Bala Falls.