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Save Our Rideau

It's 2024 - still no heritage on the Rideau
In 2012, Parks Canada removed the few resources the Rideau Canal had to do any meaningful education and interpretive programs, these resources have not been returned. This change has now been formalized in a new management plan, released 8 years after they were legally required to have a new plan (replacing the last plan done in 2005 which Parks Canada abandoned in 2012).

Their draft plan, released in late 2020, was incredibly poorly done. The final plan, released in mid-December 2022, makes a few improvements but falls far short. On the ground, the Rideau Canal still has no heritage interpretation staff and Parks Canada has not provided any resourcing to be able to do any meaningful heritage.

There is also no commitment in the plan to protect all the heritage assets of the Rideau Canal - which is a failing of Canada to protect not only the national (NHS) but also international (UNESCO WHS) heritage values of the Rideau Canal. UNESCO World Heritage Site requirements, including addressing UNESCO's specific concerns made in 2019 that "the management system for the property does not currently provide adequate protection to the OUV [outstanding universal value] or the setting thereof", are completely absent in the plan. This alone is extremely troubling.

It's a national embarrassment that Canada does not support this highly significant heritage site.

For details, see my Rideau Canal Management Page.

The Rideau Canal, the oldest continuously operated canal in North America, a National Historic Site of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is under threat from both the Government of Canada and Parks Canada, the agency charged with the care and control of this significant part of our Canadian heritage. This website details some of the many issues, particularly those related to heritage which is a key component of Parks Canada's legislation. Parks Canada's legislated mandate, in a nutshell, is to "Protect and Present the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Rideau Canal"

Parks Canada's administration of the canal took a wrong turn in 2008 with a change in focus away from heritage. The government of the day made revenue generation the primary (unlegislated) mandate for Parks Canada. In 2012, they re-organized the management of the Rideau and other heritage canals, removing all heritage components, replacing them with unlegislated priorities that fit with government philosophy. Those unlegislated priorities, being done at the expense of heritage, continue to this day. In 2017 the government directed Parks Canada to return to their legislated responsibilities, including heritage presentation. Those changes have yet to happen on the Rideau Canal, Parks Canada appears to be completely ignoring its own legislation and mandate and Ministerial directives.

The report card below looks at some of the heritage components of Parks Canada's administration of the canal and rates them. Each section links to a more detailed page on the topic.


 View or download a PDF of the Report Card

Item Grade Notes
Heritage Site Management D In 2012, the Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn Waterway were merged under a single management unit. It was an experiment done under the false premise of cost saving that hasn't worked. Both the Rideau and Trent-Severn are very large multi-layered canal systems, with different needs, particularly when it comes to heritage. The Rideau continues to suffer from a lack of dedicated management and improper staffing. Read more ...
Operating Canal B Upgraded from a C in 2014 with the addition of extra hours. But still short of 2011 (pre-cuts) hours, particularly during the summer season. Lockstation staff service continues to be excellent (Rideau lockstation staff get an A). Boats going through locks are a key component of heritage presentation of the Rideau Canal. Read more ...
Heritage Interpretation D Interpretation on the Rideau including physical (heritage landscapes, signage, brochures), personal (interpreters), and electronic (apps, web), is poor. The signage, brochures and limited personal interpretation that are available are generally good, elevating the rank from F to D. Read more ...
Site Appearance C Many of the lockstations look rundown. Peeling paint, excessive vegetation growth, spalling concrete and other issues serve to detract from the visitor experience at many lockstation. At the other end of the spectrum, some of recent restoration work has been done with a very modern appearance, degrading the heritage landscapes at those lockstation (and contravening Parks Canada's own Commemorative Integrity policies). Read more ...
Maintaining Heritage Structures B Upgraded from a D in May 2016 with the announcement of $57 million (over 4 years) in additional infrastructure funding (on top of the $46 million announced in 2015). Upgraded again to B+ in August 2016 with clarification by Parks Canada about all the projects being done (which weren't initially listed in public releases). Downgraded to B in February 2017 after frustrating discussions with Parks Canada about Cultural Resource management issues regarding this work. No "A" because:
a) Not all Deferred Work is being done (i.e. Davis Lock, monoliths at Jones Falls),
b) Parks Canada's Commemorative Integrity policies for heritage landscapes are not always being followed and
c) The Rideau Canal still does not have sustainable capital funding as part of its base budget.
Read more ...
Heritage Landscape Protection D+ There are two components to this, the heritage landscapes of the lockstations (a Parks Canada Commemorative Integrity requirement) and the visual character of the entire Rideau Canal (a UNESCO World Heritage Site recommendation). The rank of D+ is a combination of a C for heritage landscapes but an D- when it comes to the identification and protection of the visual values of the canal. Read more ...
Public Engagement D Parks Canada has a very poor record since 2012 when it comes to consulting with the heritage public on anything it does on the canal. I upgraded from F to D since new senior management is now more amenable to some consultation, although a formal process (i.e. such as the former Rideau Canal Advisory Committee) has yet to be established and concrete action, as a result of any consultations, has yet to materialize. Read more ....
Public Education F Public Education is a key policy component of Parks Canada's Commemorative Integrity of the site and also a significant requirement Parks Canada's management of the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, essentially no educational or heritage awareness programs about the Rideau Canal are being done. Read more ...
Research & Archaeology F Parks Canada does not do any heritage research or archaeology (as opposed to the 70s and 80s when much was done). In 2012 they surpluses (fired/let go) much of their heritage and archaeological staff (for the entire organization). They also shut down (removed) two local Parks Canada Rideau Canal libraries that aided local researchers. There remains a lot to do on the Rideau Canal, sites such as Jones Falls have had no significant archaeological work ever done on them. Read more ...
OVERALL - Parks Canada scores a solid D- (2.3 out of 5) when it comes to the heritage management of the Rideau Canal. It's part of their core mandate that they've been completely ignoring since 2012 (and partially ignoring since 1995).

The new management plan (released in December 2022), simply confirms this D grade, in fact makes it worse since it formalizes the loss of heritage on the Rideau Canal despite huge public input, including 50 well thought out written submissions to the draft plan in 2020, that said that cultural heritage protection and presentation, and environmental protection, should be Parks Canada’s top priorities and resourced accordingly.

Great Stone Arch Dam at Jones Falls obscured by vegetation

Heritage Obscured

This 2021 photo of the Great Stone Arch Dam at Jones Falls, the most spectacular engineering work on the entire Rideau Canal, shows a major problem with Parks Canada's heritage management, or rather lack thereof, of the Rideau Canal. Parks Canada has allowed the dam to become obscured by vegetation. In 2007, I managed to convince management to open up several viewscapes, including two at Jones Falls - the dam and the southern view from the Lockmaster's House. All the required environmental clearances were received and then ... nothing. I have pointed this problem out to every subsequent manager, and still, nothing.

This illustrates a complete lack of knowledge of heritage presentation, including passive presentation, by Parks Canada. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of how to properly present the incredible engineering achievement of the Rideau Canal. A feature of this dam is its position on the landscape and how it locks into bedrock on either side of the canyon. This cannot be seen today. It's poorly presented, poorly interpreted and shows that Parks Canada simply isn't paying attention to this remarkable heritage site.

In the fall of 2022, I got a glimmer of hope with two managers, new in their positions, apparently understanding this issue as I provided them with a tour of Jones Falls. Will this significant problem be dealt with in 2023?

The Great Arch Dam in 1841

This painting by Thomas Burrowes in 1841, shows the full extent of the dam. While this specific view cannot be restored, a full view of the dam itself can quite easily be restored. It simply requires a heritage understanding of the site, an understanding of Parks Canada's legislated mandate, and the will to do it.

Esthertown, the construction camp for the Jones Falls dam is visible in the background. The larger house on the edge of the hill was the house of contractor John Redpath's half-sister, Elspeth Fairbairn and her husband, who was the Redpath's foreman for the project.

Why This Save Our Rideau Website

I am doing this as a personal initiative. I've been promoting the Rideau Canal with my website since 1996, with my books about the Rideau Canal, and with public presentations - all done on a volunteer basis. I've been worrying for the last few years about the future of the Rideau Canal as I've watched Parks Canada move away from both heritage and public engagement. Up to now most of my efforts have been internal, figuring, as a good Canadian, that rational arguments will win in the end and that I should give government the opportunity to "do the right thing". But those rational arguments have fallen on deaf ears and things are now getting much worse.

I'd much rather be telling the fascinating story of the Rideau to the public, though my website, books, newsletters, and presentations, than lobbying the Government of Canada and Parks Canada to support Canadian heritage. However the inattention to heritage by Parks Canada, their lack of response to my concerns, and the lack of interest in Canadian heritage by now two different governments of Canada, have forced me to spend time on this <sigh>.

- Ken Watson

Sometimes it's the little things

Wall in disrepair at Chaffeys Lock, 2012
Wall in disrepair at Chaffeys Lock, 2022
Sections of the Rideau Canal are looking tired and rundown since Parks Canada does not provide sufficient capital funding to do basic repair work to the Rideau Canal. The example shown above is a section of the lower entrance wall at Chaffeys Lock. The top photo with the hazard tape was taken in 2012.  The bottom photo was taken ten years later in 2022. There are dozens (and dozens) of examples of this rundown look due to insufficient funding of the Rideau Canal by Parks Canada.

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© 2012- Ken W. Watson