By: Jill Legault

This year the John B. Ridley Research Library celebrated the 30th Anniversary of Breaking the Barrier.

Thirty years ago, the worst happened to our Quetico Family. Our Head Gate Attendant Sheila Hainey left on her lunch hour and didn’t return. She tragically died in a car accident along Hwy 11.

Sheila was a beloved mother of four and a fierce advocate for accessibility in the 80s and early 90s. This was no doubt fueled in part because her son Tom was born with spina bifida. Tom would go on to become a four-time gold and five-time silver Paralympic swimmer.

After her death, park staff suggested that the newly constructed barrier-free boardwalk trail be named in her honour. This idea was supported by the Hainey family and park administration alike.

The 800m accessible boardwalk connected the Heritage Pavilion (Visitor Centre) to the main day use area at Quetico’s Dawson Trail Campground, and followed the meandering Pickerel River on its way to French Lake.

To honour his mother and to officially open the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk in 1993, Tom swam across the park. The audacious 80 km swim from Beaverhouse Lake to French Lake Beach would be called Breaking the Barrier and was an unbelievable physical feat that took him 5 days.

Tom’s Breaking the Barrier swim remains inspiring to this day and is an important part of Quetico’s 100+ year history.

During the 2023 Anniversary Event, park staff were on hand, as Tom Hainey, the local swim team and his family to recreate his swim across the park.

We pulled out archival photos and artifacts from the John B. Ridley Library and co-created an interpretive display with the Museum of Atikokan.

The day concluded with many heartfelt speeches and an interpretive hike with the Quetico Librarian down the Sheila Hainey Memorial Boardwalk, and highlighted how Quetico Provincial Park has continued to introduce new accessibility features at the Dawson Trail Campground.

In addition to the boardwalk, the park now features an accessible pathway and beach mats to facilitate water access. The park also loans out an all-terrain wheelchair and a floating wheelchair for use on the trails or the beach.