Jeff Green | Feb 25, 2015
When Jan Hassler was 19 years old, he decided to leave his native Holland and seek a new life in Canada. One of the reasons he left was that after living through World War 2, he was facing the obligation to join the Dutch army and be deployed to Indonesia to defend Dutch colonial interests. Instead he applied to come to Canada, and that led him to Wolfe Island.
At that time, in order to migrate to Canada, sponsors were needed. A Wolfe Island fishing lodge owner, Jack Campbell, needed a hired hand, so Jan Hassler was sent to work for him. After one year he had fulfilled that commitment and he was free to make his life in Canada. Although he did travel around the country he ended up making his life on Wolfe Island, even if he knew from the start that Wolfe Islanders took family history on the island pretty seriously.
“Wolfe Island is Wolfe Island, and the residents here - they thought they were the only Wolfe Islanders. A couple of them told me, you know, you'll never be a Wolfe Islander unless your grandparents are buried here. So I said, I'll tell you what I'll do. If I like it and stay here, then maybe I'll have them shipped over,” he said, during an interview from his house in Marysville on a cold, blustery day this past January.
In 1962, he was working in Kingston in financial services when he was drawn back to the island to work with his brothers-in-law at the General Wolfe Hotel, which he managed until 1977. At that time he purchased a fishing lodge, Hitchcock House, and he kept that business until 2010.
After establishing himself as a Wolfe Island resident, raising a family, and becoming part of the business community, he was approached to join Wolfe Island Council, which he did in 1985. He served a term as a councilor, a term as deputy reeve, two terms as reeve and a term as the first ever mayor of Frontenac Islands between 1998 and 2000. He was the warden of Frontenac County in 1997, the year before municipal amalgamation.
That put him into the middle of a lot of different political debates on the island, and throughout the County.
“A lot of things were shaken up in the 1990s. One was the idea of making Wolfe Islanders pay for the ferry. It was Gilles Poulliot [Minister of Transportation under the Bob Rae NDP government] who first came to us and asked if we would mind paying a bit of money for the ferry, maybe a loonie or a toonie. We said that might be ok but what if it goes up to $5 or $10 in a few years? A number of ministers came and went and we kept saying we didn't want it of course, but the idea didn't go away. In fact I think they even printed up tickets. They're probably in a warehouse somewhere in Kingston still. Then I got a call from Tony Clement, minister under Mike Harris, asking me to come to Toronto, where he said ‘I have good news for you, the fee is not coming in.’”
When municipal amalgamation was forced on Ontario townships, Hassler and the Wolfe Island Council had some decisions to make. The question of whom to join was paramount.
“We talked to Pittsburgh Township about joining with them and forming a new township, and the idea of Howe Island joining with Gananoque also came up. But when Pittsburgh joined with Kingston we were left with a choice between Kingston and remaining with Frontenac County,” he said.
His fear about Kingston was that Wolfe Island, or even all the islands together, would become a single ward in the new City.
“That would have left us with one vote out of 12 on Council, and no independence,” he said. “As far as I was concerned that was not an option.”
In the end the Frontenac Islands were the last to sign on to join the Frontenac Management Board (which became Frontenac County again a few years later.)
“At the end everybody had agreed but I hadn't agreed. If I had decided Wolfe Island is not going to go for it, the whole thing would have fallen apart. I said yes as you know. It wasn't a perfect marriage but I don't think there are any perfect marriages. I think we made the right choice.”
One project that he still looks on with pride from his years on council was the construction of the new Wolfe Island branch of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, which was built under his watch and was recently dedicated to his predecessor as reeve of Wolfe Island, the late Timothy O'Shea, who served for 33 years from 1959 to 1991.
Jan Hassler is retired now, but he continues to keep an eye on comings and goings on Wolfe Island, and when pressed, he still gets animated about a topic that is a perennial controversy on the island, the possibility of a bridge to Kingston.
“You never worked on a bridge?” I asked as we were at the end of our interview and thinking about timing our return to the mainland to meet the afternoon ferry schedule.
“Don't ask me about a bridge,” he said. “It's been years since I thought about this bridge business. When we looked at it years ago, it would have cost $50 million to build a bridge and it was costing almost $10 million each year to run the ferry. Anyone who studied math even a little bit can tell that a bridge is cheaper in the long run, and it would not take that long to pay off, but someone has to invest in the first place.
“Even if a bridge costs $100 million it will still pay off. They are talking about spending $75 million on a bigger ferry. But I never could get anyone to take a bridge project seriously, and there are those on the islands who are opposed and will always be opposed. So I don't think about it anymore.”