Parks Canada shouldn’t forget about preservation

Michael Gates In a CBC Radio interview on April 11, Yukon MP Ryan Leef announced that the issue of providing conservation for the Parks Canada collection in Dawson City had been solved. He referred to the past high level of care, and continued to say tha

COMMENTARY

by Michael Gates

In a CBC Radio interview on April 11, Yukon MP Ryan Leef announced that the issue of providing conservation for the Parks Canada collection in Dawson City had been solved. He referred to the past high level of care, and continued to say that a continuing intensive level of care is no longer required. He was, he stated, confident that the curatorial plan for the site is adequate.

He is wrong on that count. No new funding has been appropriated to address the problem – and there is no formal plan. To use a medical analogy, gone are the surgeon, two doctors and a nurse practitioner. Instead, we will have a third-year medical student – for four months.

Caring for a priceless collection has been relegated to a part-time token duty.

Parks Canada once had a team who ensured that Parks Canada’s Yukon collection was well cared for, undertook conservation treatments, and who created many of the remarkable exhibits you see around Dawson City. But they are now all gone.

In an interview in the May 3 edition of the Yukon News, the Yukon superintendent for Parks Canada is quoted as saying that with the budget reduction targets imposed on them a year ago, “the plan was to have no one looking after the collection, but public pressure forced Parks to re-evaluate things.”

It’s unfortunate that a national agency whose mandate is to preserve our national heritage as well as present it, has chosen to neglect the first half of that equation.

In the same radio interview, Mr. Leef talked about getting artifacts “onto the market,” as though they were a commodity. But preserving our national heritage isn’t just about delivering “product,” it’s about defining our national character and preserving these things for the benefit of our grandchildren. Delivering product sounds more business-like and reveals the side of the equation this government is really concerned about.

Imagine that a national airline has eliminated most of the aircraft mechanics to reduce overhead costs. The CEO announces confidently that it would be a painful adjustment, but with the new business model, stockholders would soon realize a return on investment.

Letters from concerned passengers pour in from across the nation.

In response, and with much fanfare, the VP of operations promises that a solution would be found within 90 days. In fact, he eventually announces they have a plan to address the situation. Effective for the coming hectic summer travel season, they will hire some part-time mechanics to attend to numerous mechanical requirements of the aircraft.

Do you think that the public would remain loyal passengers, or would they start looking around for another airline?

If Parks Canada is going to eliminate preservation from its mandate, do you think that citizens (and voters) will believe that it is a good idea?

Unfortunately, the cuts were just too deep a year ago, and with these fiscal cutbacks, the government is changing the very mandate of a national institution – without any public consultation. Was changing the mandate of Parks Canada part of the platform in the last election? If it was, I didn’t see it. Did you?

That Parks Canada no longer wants anyone to look after its valuable collections here in the territory are words I would never have dreamed of hearing, but times have changed. The political masters have imposed budget cuts arbitrarily to reduce public spending. Any manager who does not go along with that direction will not be managing for very long. Any employee who still has a job is grateful, but many of them feel that their values have been compromised.

But now there is something else that concerns me.

When I spoke to Mr. Leef about the curatorial plan recently, he directed me to speak to “the professionals,” because they are the ones who know what they are doing. I tried that. I was told by one official that they weren’t to talk to me, and that I should prepare my query in the form of a written request. Then a media person would get back to me. Another official spoke to me – on the understanding that we would deny having had any conversation. Another referred me to a media person – who didn’t understand the nature of my inquiry. Even the CEO, responding to a letter that I wrote to him, would only refer me to his minister – Peter Kent. Minister Kent responded all right, but dodged the question that I had posed.

In other words, instead of getting answers, I got the runaround.

Despite utterances to the contrary, the current government won’t allow the professionals to set standards, or speak publicly, unless closely watched. The politicians appear to be calling the shots. The political masters have set the bar for historic preservation very low, and the civil servants will have to adjust their posture to slide under it, and keep quiet – or look for a new job.

And no one is allowed to comment on the emperor’s new clothes.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian based in Whitehorse.

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