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Save Our Rideau
Why the Dwindling Support for Our Heritage Canals?

Support by Parks Canada of the Canadian heritage sites they own, such as the Rideau Canal, has been dwindling over the last few years and I've been trying to figure out why exactly that has been happening. This has become much more evident in 2012 where we see that instead of taking an equal percentage of the federal cut to Parks Canada (5%), the canals are being asked to take more than a 20% cut to their already underfunded operating budgets. At the same time we see the federal government dumping not one, but two new National Parks onto Parks Canada, including one that is not even in Parks Canada's mandate to administer. Here lies at least part of the answer of why Canada's heritage canals are taking disproportionate funding cuts.

Political points and legacies have always been made by creating new parks. It's part of a politician's edifice complex (creating new monuments to gain votes and create legacies). The current government, already under the public/media gun for not being "green", can at least look green by making new National Parks. The first this year was the Rouge Valley National Urban Park near Toronto which is going to require about $18 million dollars per year to operate. The second was the Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories. I do not have a budget number for this one, but it will be in the many millions of dollars per year.

While the additional financial burden for these parks is being placed on Parks Canada, the government is cutting the Parks Canada budget. The federal government has stated that they will give $143.7 million dollars over ten years, as part of Canada's "Economic Action Plan", for the Rouge Valley National Urban Park - but that's simply a budget shell game - they're all our tax dollars. Bottom line is that Parks Canada is being given significant additional cost responsibilities at a time when its budget is being cut.

The top management of Parks Canada is essentially political (the CEO is a 3-year term political appointment), it follows the dictates of the government in power as opposed to more strictly following the requirements of its legislation and mandate. Parks Canada has not seen any inflation adjustments to its budget in the last few years which is eroding its funding (this has the real-world effect of actually decreasing its budget). To keep up the appearance of government "greenness", Parks Canada has been trying to preserve its National Parks side as much as possible while taking money from other sections of its operations, most notably its National Historic Sites section (which includes the heritage canals). We even see National Park's programs being run on National Historic Sites. An example is the Learn to Camp program, developed mostly from the green brownie point political perspective (good optics to be teaching new Canadians how to camp) but with the public rationale of addressing declining camping numbers in National Parks. Why is this program being run on the Rideau Canal using scarce canal funding and personnel? I've yet to see an equivalent "Learn to Boat" program being run in Banff National Park.

In addition to its funding burden, the transfer of the Rouge Valley Urban Park to Parks Canada is a dangerous new move on the part of the federal government. This type of park is not part of Parks Canada's mandate. Canada's National Parks Act recognizes one standard, a "wilderness ecological standard", so either that act has to be re-written to water down the standard (to the detriment of our real National Parks), or a new National Urban Park Act created to accommodate this very different type of park. Urban parks are a good idea, but they should be a municipal/provincial responsibility. I'm sure that it is simply a coincidence that this new National Urban Park happens to be adjacent to Minister Peter Kent's riding.

Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve is just one of a recent sting of National Parks and National Park Reserves - there have been eight new ones created since 2001. In addition, there have been two National Marine Conservation Areas and one National Urban Park created since 2001. All of these place additional funding and staffing burdens onto Parks Canada. There are also three areas in the queue awaiting National Park designation (presumably we'll get a couple of those just before the next election) and many other areas being lobbied by various groups to become National Parks. Where is the money coming for all of these? Well, some is clearly coming from our heritage canals.

The political reality of parks vs heritage sites is evident in the government talking points about Parks Canada. The message delivered by Peter Kent, Michelle Remple and others in 2012 was "We have increased protected spaces across the country by over 50% since taking office in 2006." I've come across that line dozens of time. In reference to Parks Canada: "With regard to the maintenance of Parks Canada spaces across the country, Parks Canada will continue to be well funded and visitors will continue to have excellent experiences through programs, such as My Parks pass. We have a great track record in this area." No mention of heritage sites, no mention of funding cuts. Political hay is made by looking green, The budget cut to Parks Canada and how Parks Canada is applying that cut is all about politics, not what is best for Canada. The reality check of course is that the Canadian Government has cut the budget to Parks Canada and Parks Canada, trying to keep their political masters happy, has made the cuts far deeper in their heritage side in order to protect as much funding as they can for their parks side (while keeping their top heavy bureaucracy intact). That, unfortunately for the Rideau Canal, is the reality of the situation.

I like our National Parks, I've visited and camped in many of them across Canada. But their operation should not be done at the expense of Canadian heritage, something that is happening under Parks Canada's administration. The Federal government should be providing sufficient funding to Parks Canada to run those parks, so that Parks Canada doesn't have to steal that money from its heritage sites. And of course the government should be funding our Canadian heritage sites at the level required to properly operate and maintain them. We don't have the luxury of being able to create new heritage canals - we have to properly protect and present the ones we have. The Government of Canada had an extra $143.7 million dollars lying around to toss into a new urban park (plus presumably whatever "new" millions are required for the Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve), it would be nice to see the small fraction of that funding that would be required to properly repair, operate, and present the Rideau Canal.

- Ken Watson

October 14, 2012 Update - The federal government has just spent another 6.3 million dollars that Parks Canada doesn't have on expanding the Gulf Island Parks Reserve by 100 hectares. In yet another hypocritical statement (given the fact that the government has cut Parks Canada budget) Minister Kent stated that this “is another example of our government's strong record on the environment, particularly in the area of conservation. Since 2006, the Harper Government has added nearly 150,000 square kilometres of new park lands and waters." Minister Kent's long experience with the media obviously allows him to make such statement while keeping a straight face.

Of course what Minister Kent doesn't say is that the Harper Government has slashed the Parks Canada budget meaning that they cannot properly administer the Parks they have, much less new ones. Minister Kent is also supporting the fact that Parks Canada is stealing money from its heritage side to pay for its environment side. I hope that at the core, Minister Kent feels shame for what his government is doing to the Rideau Canal and the other Canadian heritage sites under Parks Canada's jurisdiction. This is the dirty side of politics.

December 1, 2012 Update - it appears that the next National Park that Parks Canada will be burdened with is Bathurst Island National Park - likely to become a National Park in 2013. Preliminary estimates for the cost of this park is $20 million dollars over seven years.

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© 2012- Ken W. Watson