harpers curiously timed trip


If the intention was to make Prime Minister Stephen Harper look foolish, his planned visit to Whitehorse on Discovery Day could not be better timed.

Here he will be, likely offering bland platitudes about the Yukon’s proud history of mining before a crowd of Conservative loyalists at a fundraising barbecue, during a short, tightly-scripted stop.

Meanwhile, the Conservative government’s budget cuts mean that one of the Yukon’s most valued historic sites will soon be largely blocked off from public view. Funny way of celebrating our heritage, isn’t it?

After this summer, Dredge No. 4 will be padlocked, and public tours within the massive piece of machinery at Bonanza Creek will cease.

To compound the stupidity of this closure, the federal government recently poured $1.25 million into restoring the dredge’s rotten boards.

This summer, the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers recognized the dredge as a significant national engineering work.

And the collossus’ closure comes just before its centenary, to be celebrated next year.

Future visitors will have trouble appreciating the strange workings of this structure from its outside. Originally built in 1912 for the Canadian Klondike Mining Company, it stands eight storeys and is the length of two-thirds of a football field.

This monstrous machine once hauled itself up riverbeds, churning through 600 tonnes of gravel every hour. Every three to four days, 50 pounds of gold was cleaned from the sluices.

The dredge is the largest of its kind in North America. In recognition of how well it captures the transformation of gold mining in the Klondike from its early, labour-intensive methods to its later, industrialized form, the dredge became a national historic site in 1997.

Federal cuts also mean that this is the last summer that visitors will be able to take a guided tour of the S.S. Klondike in Whitehorse. Next year, tours will be self-guided.

Both the dredge and the sternwheeler offer compelling reasons for American RVers to spend time, and money, in the territory while en route to Alaska. Interpretive panels are no substitute for a knowledgeable guide.

No wonder the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon sees the territory’s Parks Canada cuts as particularly damaging.

Parks Canada officials insist they can’t continue providing tours of these facilities after shedding 30 of the agency’s 110 jobs in the territory. From outside of government, it’s impossible to say whether this is a case of bureaucratic intransigence or an actual case of government workers being spread too thin.

One can’t help but wonder whether collective agreement rules are as big an impediment as manpower. Seasonal jobs, such as tour guides, are presumably easier to chop than some of the permanent, pencil-pushing jobs.

Regardless of what the difficulty may be, Harper could quickly stamp out this embarrassment if he felt like it. He did something similar one year ago, when he last visited the Yukon and was confronted with questions about why water-monitoring stations were being shuttered.

Admittedly, this followed public criticism by the Northwest Territory’s environment minister. One hopes that the Yukon’s tourism minister, Mike Nixon, has made similar entreaties. But if he has, he’s been quiet about it.

Confronted with the water-station closures, Harper blamed officials for making an “unauthorized” decision and reinstated the project funding. A similar face-saving move is needed here to restore the tours of the dredge and sternwheeler.

That would change Harper’s visit from a blunder into an opportunity. And it would add some substance to a prime ministerial speech about the importance of the Yukon’s history. (JT)