City may put its whistle away and let skaters onto Winnipeg retention pond rinks

For decades, residents around Winnipeg’s 200 retention ponds have shovelled and hand-Zambonied everything from sheets of ice just big enough to teach a toddler to skate to full-size, shinny-ready rinks with nets. 

But every person striding, cross-stepping and slapping shots on those rinks is a rule-breaker. 

That may change, though, with a review of the rules ordered this week by the city’s water and waste committee.

Winnipeg Bylaw No. 93/2014 was written “to regulate activities on the frozen surfaces of waterways,” and prohibits the use of retention ponds for leisure activities in the winter. 

In December, the city started a noisy campaign to reinforce the rules and blow the whistle on the skaters.

According a spokesperson, city staff have spoken with residents at 45 ponds since late November, but no tickets have been issued. The city also distributed over 1,300 handouts around 46 ponds where there was evidence of heavy usage.

Southland Park resident Michelle Friesen says city staff showed up at a retention pond in her southeast neighbourhood that month and kicked people off the ice. It was the first time she can remember that happening.

“Well, I’ve been in this neighbourhood for 14 years and there’s always been rinks out here,” Friesen told CBC News as her two children skated by on a freshly shovelled pond rink.

Michelle Friesen with the Southland Park Residents Association says the city could send staff to check the ice depth on retention ponds instead of warning people not to skate on them. (John Einarson/CBC)

There are five rinks laid out on one section of the retention pond alone, and even more out of sight as the pond curves.

Friesen, who is president of the Southland Park Residents Association, said she’d taken her kids to The Forks the day before, where there were a lot more people and physical distancing seemed to be a challenge.

Retention pond rinks everywhere: councillor

Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason is one of several on council to pushing to have the bylaw reviewed. He figures what’s happening on the Southland Park retention pond is going on all over the city.

“I would hazard a guess, probably less than a handful of these [ponds] don’t have skating rinks. I think as a winter city that we espouse to be, we need to find a way that we can allow that activity to be done safely, as it has been done for decades in Winnipeg,” Nason said.

He met CBC News on the bank of a massive drainage pond in his ward that is home to Water Ski Wakeboard Manitoba’s facility in the summer, and to the Winnipeg Sports Car Club’s ice racing circuit in the winter.

“It’s obvious that we do use it for recreational use, because I don’t think driving cars on ice is something that we do normally,” Nason said. “It is a recreational activity that’s done safely. My understanding is they monitor it to make sure it’s done safely. I can’t see why can’t we do the same on some of our retention ponds.”

Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason says generations of Winnipeggers have been using ice within the city. ‘We need to find a responsible way to use the recreational opportunities that we have on these ponds,’ he says. (John Einarson/CBC )

A city spokesperson says the Winnipeg Sports Car Club has a sublease with the city and is required to carry appropriate insurance coverage for its use, meaning the city is “not liable or responsible for any death/injury on the property or for any damage to the property.” 

Liability, councillors on the city’s water and waste committee were told this week, is a substantial issue when it comes to residents using the retention ponds.

There are concerns over safety, litter and access to the ponds, said Moira Geer, the director of the water and waste department.

The review of the city’s rules will include multiple departments and find out what’s being done in cities across Canada. 

Friesen says the rinks in Southland Park are a big part of making her neighbourhood a friendlier and better place to live. Her neighbourhood association would look at getting insurance to relieve the city of the liability issue, but she says that may not be as easy in other neighbourhoods.

She also suggests the city could send crews to ensure the ponds are safe, instead of enforcing bylaws. 

“If it’s a matter of people checking the thickness of the ice, well, maybe the city can do that instead of sending people around to kick the kids off,” Friesen said.

The review of the bylaw is expected to be completed by May.