Many Yukoners were shocked last May 2 when the cuts to Parks Canada were made public for the first time. Two major attractions, though not technically closed to the public, would no longer offer guided tours. The entire section responsible for the care and management of Parks Canada’s huge Yukon collection was also erased.
In an interview with the Whitehorse Star on May 9, MP Ryan Leef said that the revenue from these “attractions” doesn’t justify the costs: “If it was something we knew people were flooding to the Yukon to see and it was generating thousands and thousands of dollars to that venue itself and thousands and thousands of dollars into the local economy simply for that thing, of course it would make no (economic) sense to cut that, but it simply is not the case.”
How wrong he was. The negative outcry that arose from the announcement was widespread, from the City of Dawson, from the public, and from the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon. The latter organization quickly and assertively contradicted Mr. Leef’s assessment of the economic impact of the closures that were announced for the S.S. Klondike and Dredge No. 4 National Historic Sites. TIA warned that the cuts were a threat to the economy from the loss of direct and indirect visitor spending.
I wrote a letter to Leef concerning the cuts in September. It took a few weeks, but I was finally able to speak directly with him. I felt at the time that he expressed an understanding that these cuts were a threat to the long-term preservation of the massive collection of gold rush artifacts cared for by Parks Canada in Dawson City. This left me optimistic that my concerns had been heard, and understood.
Then on Oct. 31, the territorial assembly unanimously supported a motion by MLA Stacey Hassard to ask the federal government to “recognize the role Parks Canada sites in Yukon play in attracting visitors, increasing the value of Yukon tourism products.”
Among the things called for was reinstatement of the curatorial staff who care for the collection, which is worth somewhere around $50 million. The City of Dawson followed suit on November 13 by unanimously passing a resolution supporting the territorial government and urging the feds to restore the funding for curatorial, conservation and collections management staff.
The City of Whitehorse and the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce have also expressed concern about the Parks Canada cuts.
After Christmas, Leef stated in an interview that an important announcement would be made by the end of February.
In February, while waiting for the announcement, I received a reply to a letter I wrote to the head of Parks Canada in December in which he merely told me that I would soon receive a response from the federal environment minister, Peter Kent. When Kent’s letter, dated Feb. 20, arrived, the minister stated that the budget cuts “should improve internal efficiencies and reduce costs while allowing Parks Canada to respect its core mandate, focus on its priorities and deliver quality service to Canadians.”
“No Parks Canada sites,” he added, “have been closed.”
“Parks Canada will continue to tell the stories that are important to our national identity.” Nowhere did Mr. Kent allude to preservation as part of the Parks Canada mandate.
Meanwhile, Yukon’s minister of tourism and culture, Mike Nixon, met with Kent in Ottawa where he said that they were “just trying to get everybody on the same page.” The meetings, he said, were “more building a positive relationship with them and not showing up with your hair on fire.”
The long-awaited announcement was finally made last Friday, March 8. The announcement came a week later than promised, which, with the visitor season only a few weeks away, was not a delay welcomed by the tourism industry.
With much fanfare, Leef, Nixon and Senator Dan Lang presided over a press conference where they announced what is basically an internal administrative procedure that would licence independent tour operators to take visitors on the Klondike and the dredge.
Nixon was clearly on board, stating that “The Yukon government is very pleased by the measures taken by the Government of Canada to ensure that Yukon continues to offer high-quality tourism experiences.”
Lang stated he was pleased “that the Yukon minister and Parks Canada have heard Yukoners and are presenting a viable solution that enhances our important tourism while preserving Yukon’s heritage.”
Leef stated that “local curatorial service and national curatorial services” would handle the care of the collections.
There are a few things that trouble me with all that has transpired since the initial announcement was made almost a year ago.
While supporting the motion of Oct. 31, Nixon now seems content to show his support for the solution devised by the federal government. We do not hear him speaking out about the long-term preservation of our history. His comments about his trip to Ottawa about relationship-building with the feds sound timid, rather than assertive. Is this how he gets the message across?
Second, the comments of Kent, Leef and Lang suggest more than they can deliver. There is in fact no local curatorial service left in Parks Canada in the Yukon field unit. Is there something they haven’t yet told us? Will the janitorial staff in Dawson now get to clean the artifacts? If so, who would provide the training or oversight?
The curatorial service in Ottawa may handle requests on a project basis – from 5,000 kilometres away. But all the essential on-site collection care, inventory, maintenance and management could remain untended or dealt with in a haphazard manner.
Most alarming is the way the preservation part of the Parks Canada mandate is being sidestepped or misdirected. It appears that by making these cuts, the government is avoiding a commitment to the important, but less-sexy aspect of preserving our national treasures for future generations.
I was recently accused of having standards that were too high. I don’t think so. The conditions under which rust will occur are dictated by the laws of physics, not by government or personal policy. The effects of improper storage, poor handling, or exposure to light and air pollutants cannot be erased by a memo. Vandals will still strike and the occasional object may be stolen. Measures must be taken to deal with these and many other contingencies.
The budget cuts to Parks Canada in the Yukon are like a competitive but overweight runner who cuts off one of his legs to bring his weight under control. It works, but he can’t run any more.
On the other hand, even one competent, trained collections specialist on staff could make all the difference in the world.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org