OTTAWA - Get out to a national park while you can — budget cuts at Parks Canada have resulted in shorter seasons and fewer guided tours, according to internal agency documents.
Documents obtained by the Star reveal Parks Canada is on pace to cut more than $27 million from its planned $659.7 million 2014-15 budget, including savings of $5 million through limiting operating seasons at national parks and historic sites to “peak visitation periods.”
Moving away from guided tours to “self-guided visitor activities” at some historic sites is projected to save another $2 million annually, while the consolidation of Parks Canada service centres and contracting out work is expected to shave $10.5 million off the agency’s budget.
The belt-tightening at Parks Canada began in 2012, when the Conservatives started their push to balance the federal books after years of stimulus spending. But the numbers show that, contrary to the government’s repeated assurances, front-line services are taking a hit to put Ottawa back in the black.
“These are cuts to direct services, exactly what the Conservatives promised wouldn’t happen,” said Megan Leslie, Halifax MP and New Democratic environment critic.
“(This) is about us trying to access our cultural heritage (and) our natural heritage. This is actually going to prevent people from being able to access our parks.”
Operational cuts at Parks Canada have been ramping up over the last three fiscal years, with estimated savings of $6 million in 2012-2013, $19.7 million in 2013-2014, and $27.2 million in 2014-2015. The agency projects that the measures will continue to save roughly $27 million on an annual basis — about $2 million less than anticipated in the 2012 budget.
The $2-million difference could be accounted for by a directive from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which reduced cuts to recreational navigation along historic waterways and canals from $6 million a year to $4 million.
“The ($6 million) savings measure for navigation services on historic canals that was announced in Budget 2012 caused significant adverse reaction from commercial operators along the Trent Severn Waterway and the Rideau Canal,” read one document marked “secret,” and signed by former Environment Minister Peter Kent.
“In October 2012, the Prime Minister approved a modification of the savings profile from $6 (million) to $4 (million) . . . Parks Canada is on track to achieve the full savings identified for this revised measure.
Parks Canada is also eliminating spending on “teacher and curricula tools development,” projected to save almost $1 million annually. At the same time, the agency’s most recent plans and priorities document laments Canada’s lack of historical perspective.
That document boasts Parks Canada historic sites and parks generate around $3.3 billion annually for the Canadian economy, spread out over 400 communities across the country. Liberal environment critic John McKay said cuts to the agency’s operating budget, as well as ongoing capital woes, put that economic return in jeopardy.
“The multiplier effect of restricting access to the park either on the shoulder seasons or even in the main season is of considerable significance to local communities,” McKay, the MP for Scarborough-Guildwood, said Tuesday.
“You can imagine the economic benefit that comes (from parks and historic sites). And because you contract, the effect of the contraction is it ripples through the economy.”
The Star requested interviews with both Parks Canada officials and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq on Monday, and provided both offices with the numbers used in this article.
Both offices declined to be interviewed.
Aglukkaq’s director of communications said the environment minister was in her home riding of Nunavut, and difficult to reach for an interview. In a prepared response emailed Tuesday afternoon, Ted Larkin said the Conservatives have made “significant investments” in Parks Canada in recent years.
In an email Friday, Parks Canada did not address four questions put to the agency on Monday. Instead, the media relations team wrote that visitors enjoy “a full complement of services at parks and sites during periods of traditionally high visitation.”
The Star reported in December that Parks Canada is struggling under a massive $2.8-billion backlog of maintenance and repair work at some of Canada’s most recognizable and beloved locations. Parks Canada documents complain of “chronic underfunding” and warn the agency’s mandate to protect Canada’s cultural and natural heritage is at risk.
A subsequent consultant’s report, commissioned by the agency, revealed that Parks Canada assets were in worse shape than officials realized.