Is Dawson City’s history up for sale?

'Budget Axe Falls on Parks Canada" proclaimed the newspaper banner on the side of the large flat-bed trailer that carried the float in the Discovery Day parade.

‘Budget Axe Falls on Parks Canada” proclaimed the newspaper banner on the side of the large flat-bed trailer that carried the float in the Discovery Day parade. It was Dawson City and the year was not 2012, it was 1979.

In addition to the large banner, the Parks Canada crew constructed a mock-up panel of the Palace Grand Theatre. Supported on a tripod at the back of the float was a huge wooden axe that had split the theatre in half.

The word had come down that the budget for the ambitious development program in Dawson City had been dramatically reduced. What had seemed an opportunity to commemorate one of Canada’s flagship historic events, the Klondike Gold Rush, was now dashed upon the rocks of fiscal restraint.

It seemed like a risky move on the part of Randy Mitchell, the superintendent at the time, to support such a float design. The concept could ruffle the feathers of our political masters back in Ottawa. Our boss could find himself transferred to Outer Slobovia for this kind of commentary.

This action was complicated by the fact that the minister responsible for Parks Canada, Jake Epp, was going to be in Dawson during Discovery Day festivities.

When the float rolled into Minto Park at the conclusion of the parade, the staff on board started a mock auction to sell off pseudo-artifacts. “Clearance Sale,” proclaimed one poster pinned to the skirting around the float. “Everything must go!” stated another. The auctioneer held up various items and tried to sell them off to the crowd standing around.

Randy Mitchell didn’t lose his job, and as far as I know, he didn’t get his wrist slapped for approving the design of the float. The operation in Dawson City survived the cuts, and everybody soldiered on.

Thirty-three years later, Parks Canada in Dawson City has continued its dedicated work to preserve and present the gold rush story to hundreds of thousands of visitors. In fact, Dawson City is a marvellous town where the history hadn’t been bulldozed to make way for progress.

The last time I checked, it had three times the number of nationally significant buildings as the city of Calgary, population one million.

Also worthy of note is that many of the works planned in the 1979 management plan that was so crippled by budget cuts have since been accomplished. It took longer, but the dedicated staff completed many of the projects proposed in the plan, creating something that all Canadians should be proud of.

The budget cut of 1979 was only the beginning of the financial reductions to the Parks Canada operation. Over the years, various governments have whittled away at the financial support provided to preserve Canada’s heritage.

Inflation has further eaten into the allotment so that the current expenditure is just a fraction of what it once was. Meanwhile, Parks Canada and its excellent staff have performed well, continuing to preserve the heritage in a creative and professional manner. That, however, is about to change.

The budget cuts just announced will fundamentally alter the way in which Parks Canada will function. Take Dawson City for example.

Though it wasn’t included in the media information provided to the public, the current round of cuts has eliminated entire functions. While the doors may remain open to the historic attractions currently being operated, there will be less staff there to help explain the story. Visitors will often have to figure the story out for themselves from the signage.

The curatorial staff, who have cared for one of Parks Canada’s largest site collections, and the largest collection held by any institution in the Yukon, will be eliminated within a few months. As far as I know, the regional service centres that provided professional and technical support have been decimated.

Any regular care for the collection, or emergency response (for instance, if the site were to be subjected to another flood), will have to come from specialists thousands of kilometres away. Imagine a national chain of tire shops that has been restructured to save money, so that now the flat tires have to be sent to Toronto to be repaired.

The historic collection of Parks Canada in Dawson City holds irreplaceable artifacts that are original to the gold rush era. Now there will be no one to care for them.

Many options have been explored in recent years in order to save the historic buildings held by Parks Canada. Some are rented out, others house staff (or did until this current announcement) or provide work and office space.

Those that haven’t been fully restored have window displays to tell the story. Creative partnerships have been sought to put other old buildings to use.

The future for the collections is much gloomier, however, and raises many questions. Contained within the collection are artifacts pertaining to Dredge Number 4, the Dawson Daily News and Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop, to name some examples. Who will provide competent professional care for these priceless treasures? Will they be the orphaned child that gets farmed out to a distant relative, or put up for adoption? Will they be sold off?

While the press releases remind us that the funding cuts were made to reduce the deficit, and soothing assurances were given that the doors will still remain open to the public, there is a darker secret hidden in what was not stated.

These cuts will fundamentally change how we think about and care for our national treasures. When the burden of care becomes too great for the depleted staff left behind, thought will be given to options never before contemplated.

I think we may soon see the collection given away, or sold off as a cost-cutting measure. We may have been able to take the budget cuts of 1979 in good humour, but it ain’t gonna happen this time.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in good stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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