Will Yukon’s MP champion Yukon’s threatened heritage?

According to the official website for the Parks Canada Agency, "An important part of Parks Canada's mandate involves protecting the health and wholeness, or commemorative integrity, of the national historic sites it operates.

According to the official website for the Parks Canada Agency, “An important part of Parks Canada’s mandate involves protecting the health and wholeness, or commemorative integrity, of the national historic sites it operates. This means preserving the site’s cultural resources, communicating its heritage values and national significance, and kindling the respect of people whose decisions and actions affect the site.”

With recent Parks Canada budget cuts and staff lay-offs in the Yukon, this mandate has been compromised in ways that previous cuts have not. Will these cuts leave Parks Canada able to sustain a bid for World Heritage Site status for the Klondike?

I composed an inquiry and sent it to Ryan Leef, MP for the Yukon. I am not a political animal, but I turn to my member of Parliament, whatever his or her political stripe, when I feel that I need an ally or a champion for something that affects the Yukon.

Here is what I wrote:

As one of your constituents, I want to voice my concern regarding recent cuts to the Parks Canada budget and personnel in the Yukon.

Many have voiced concern about the issue of closures of Dredge No. 4, and the elimination of guided tours on the SS Klondike, so I won’t linger on them.

I am concerned that major cuts in personnel in Dawson City leave significant national treasures vulnerable to mishandling, mistreatment, theft, loss and deterioration. The entire unit of staff dedicated to the care and display of collections has been eliminated. I think that the quality of our current exhibits will decline, and our ability to develop new offerings of non-personal interpretation to the public has been crippled.

Parks Canada houses a quarter of a million artifacts in Dawson, most of them site-specific nationally significant treasures. Also housed are documents and reference material that help to make clear the meaning of these resources. They are not replaceable. Many of them are associated with national historic sites like Dredge No. 4, the Commissioner’s Residence, the Dawson Daily News, Bigg’s Blacksmith Shop, the Red Feather Saloon, and so forth. The remainder, in large part, contribute to the interpretation of the themes that represent the messages of national significance.

Over the past four decades, the collection has been organized, rationalized, placed in proper storage with proper means for tracking their locations and their histories. That work will unravel very quickly without the staff to maintain order and proper care.

The way in which the work was done has resulted in a very cost-efficient means of caring for them. At a cost of two cents per annum per artifact to care for the collection, it would take 2,500 years of care before the cost of removing them from the collection would be recovered! In other words, it’s a bargain to continue caring for them.

The collection had a full-time conservator. If interventions were required to treat an object, many could be done on site. Now they are going to have to wait in the queue in a conservation lab 5,000 kilometres away. Artifacts often receive more damage in transit than they were originally sent away for. Would you want to send your flat tire to a tire shop in Ottawa for repair? I don’t think so, so why would we consider this approach as a viable alternative for the national treasures housed in Dawson City?

In the flood of 1979, much of Parks Canada’s collection was immersed in water. Fortunately, at the time, there was a trained conservation professional working site. Help didn’t arrive from the outside for more than a week. The measures taken before their arrival ensured the survival of many valuable treasures from the collection. That capability for immediate response to emergencies has now been lost.

You may be aware that there are over 30 displays in Dawson that showcase the treasures from the Parks Canada collection. They range from simple display cases to fully furnished historic buildings like the Commissioner’s Residence, which was opened by the prime minister in 1996. These showcase the story of the Klondike gold rush, and are world class in quality. They were all designed and developed by staff on-site who have now been eliminated.

That capacity is now gone. At a time when we are being told that the staff reductions will result in non-personal interpretation of many of our attractions, I don’t understand why the personnel who were responsible for such work have been eliminated when they will be even more needed.

One of the Dawson personnel who was eliminated, was recently awarded recognition of excellence by the CEO of Parks Canada. Among her accomplishments: bringing in a quarter of a million dollars of money from outside of Parks Canada, and the participation of several other agencies and interest groups. Isn’t that the kind of staff that we should retain?

So why the cut? Since then, the site has had to turn back another quarter of a million dollars of money, from outside of the agency, for a virtual museum project that would have fulfilled all of the criteria for cost effectiveness, and reaching citizens all across the country, as well as around the world.

In addition to all of these points, consider that the positions that were eliminated consisted of people highly trained and experienced. These same people also did the inspection and maintenance of artifacts at all of the sites in the Yukon field unit, not just in Dawson City. Thus the collections housed in Haines Junction (Kluane National Park) and in Whitehorse (SS Klondike) are now vulnerable. A janitor or a site interpreter won’t be able to do the job, but they are the only ones left at the sites now.

In their eagerness to meet targets set by your government, someone, or some people in management have made decisions that do not make sense, and which leave a major national collection vulnerable and uncared for. Long distance care from a service centre 5,000 kilometres away just won’t do it.

Mr. Leef, I know what I am talking about, and I know what is at stake. I was curator of collections for Parks Canada in Dawson City for many years, and worked in the heritage field my entire career. Our national legacy in Dawson is at risk, and I think that something should be done to reverse or minimize the damage of some bad decisions before it is too late.

I received a reply in due course, which really didn’t answer my questions. I repeat my request here in my column in the hope that it will elicit a more focused reply. Cutting the entire collections staff for the Yukon was a bad management decision that will seriously harm the commemorative integrity. What will be done to rectify the decision?

Here is Mr. Leef’s reply:

Recently I have received a few inquiries in regards to the cessation of guided tours for Dredge #4 in Dawson City.

I fully agree and support that Dredge #4 is an important Yukon historical site. Not only is it important for Yukon, it is also an official National Historic Site. The educational value that it represents, for Yukoners and international visitors, is something that we should absolutely be proud of.

As many of you know, the cessation of guided tours of Dredge #4 is part of the budget reduction facing Parks Canada. I will continue to work with the government and Parks Canada, in an effort to identify this as an important endeavour, and work towards a solution that is mutually beneficial.

Thank you for bringing your concerns forward to me.

Sincerely,

Ryan Leef

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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