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Many newspaper headlines appeared in the spring of 2012 with these two names highlighted. The Rideau, a recently designated World Heritage Site, and the Trent Severn, with a combined age of 325 years, were designated as transportation routes until 1972 when the Federal Cabinet moved canal operations from the Department of Transport to Parks Canada.

In March of 2012, during Federal budget deliberations, Parks Canada (PC) was given a budget reduction target of $29.2M over 3 years.  Of this total, PC assigned reductions of $2M for the Rideau and $3M for the Trent Severn, along with a previous TS budget deficit of $1.7M. Rumors began immediately on possible ways the canals could meet these targets: half of the staff would be laid off, hours of operation would be drastically reduced, operating season would be shortened from traditional Victoria Day through Thanksgiving to July 1st through Labour Day, open weekends only, and others.

On May 3, a memo from a PC senior manager addressed to Dear Stakeholder/Partner/Friend contained the following information: PC will align length of season, hours of operation and personal service to boaters through new management units and this restructuring will take some time. 139 Trent Severn staff have received letters indicating their positions may be affected and 11 have been approved for voluntary layoff. There has been no decision on the end-of-season date for 2012 or for schedule and service for 2013. Staff, partners and stakeholders will be informed as decisions are made.

Somehow, this memo did nothing to diminish anxiety for stakeholders on the canals. Members of Parliament from affected ridings were inundated with calls from boaters, marina associations, mayors, chambers of commerce, tour boat operators and houseboat rental companies. Each of these groups had serious concerns about the viability of their businesses/communities if the operating season was reduced by any or all of the rumored amounts.

Boating Ontario represents 29 Rideau marinas with 1900 slips and 83 Trent Severn marinas with 7700 slips. These marinas employ 1500 full-time and half that number of part-time employees, with some of these at risk from system hour or season-length cuts. Municipalities like Smiths Falls, Bobcaygeon, and Fenelon Falls draw thousands of tourists who are attracted to see boats locking through the system, and some of their businesses survive on these summer tourists. Tour boat operators and houseboat rental businesses would not be financially viable on shortened seasons. Thousands of boaters move about the system and while most of them are travelling in July and August, many need the system in shoulder seasons to return to their home port or to head south for the winter. It is important to note that all of the above also play a significant role in the education of visitors about the canals, the environment and the core responsibilities of Parks Canada in accordance with its mandates.

Four MP’s on the Trent- Bruce Stanton, Barry Devolin, Dean Del Mastro, and Rick Norlock, along with Gord Brown from the Rideau, met with constituents and the message they heard was consistent, loud and clear. Revenue from boaters (one of the few canal revenue sources) was decreasing because hours had previously been cut. Shortened operation hours and or season length on the canals in 2012 would result in a further decrease in revenue, which would compound the problem and become a self-fulfilling, money losing prophecy.  

Soon after the MP’s began constituent meetings, the following memo was delivered to the media:

MINISTER KENT WELCOMES OPENING OF 2012 NAVIGATION SEASON

OTTAWA, May 18, 2012The Honourable Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, today welcomed visitors to the canals managed by Parks Canada. The navigation season for most of the canals opens today across the country.

“Canada’s historic canals offer a unique way to experience Canada and the many communities along these waterways. Our Government recognizes the importance of these canals to the tourism industry and the many communities that rely of them. We are committed to ensuring all our iconic destinations remain cornerstones of the Canadian tourism experience.”

In order to give communities, visitors and businesses enough time to make adjustments to the reduced navigation seasons, the length of the 2012 operating season at Canada’s canals will remain unchanged.

As we implement changes to next year’s navigation season, Parks Canada will work closely with local stakeholders, Members of Parliament and partners to minimize, where possible, the impacts of these changes on neighbouring communities and partners in the tourism community,” concluded Kent.

Under the 2012 Federal Budget, Parks Canada is adjusting the duration of operating seasons and hours of operation at national parks, canals and national historic sites when tourism demand is lowest. For canals, this means Parks Canada will be aligning its seasons, hours of operation and personal service offer to better reflect patterns of visitation.


And After A Short Breather….. With the 2012 season salvaged the real work began; the 5 MP’s continued to meet with stakeholders over the summer with a target of getting a report with go-forward recommendations to Minister Kent by the end of August.

Every Canadian understands that governments must cut expenses and eliminate deficit financing but cuts must make economic sense. One marina/boat dealer on the Rideau, whose business would be at risk if the system closed on Labour Day, pays more in HST, business, payroll and property taxes than the total proposed $2M savings from budget cuts on that canal.

When the Federal budget is titled, “Jobs and Growth” a discussion on cutting the hours of operation and person power on the canals has a completely opposite effect. There is a need to work from the positive approach to “Jobs and Growth” when moving forth on the canal operating costs.

A cut of hours/days, would have a major negative impact on the multiplier effect to businesses and their employees in and along the canal.  It looks simple to cut hours and staff, but this forces the businesses using the canal or in the towns along the canal to cut their staff as well.  It is those businesses and their employees that pay taxes. No work means layoffs, which means collection of employment insurance and less paid in income tax.  There is an interrelationship between the canal and the financial viability of the communities along the canal and the government’s own revenue streams (gas tax, HST, and income and business taxes).

Another factor, usually relegated to the back burner or forgotten when discussing the costs of canals, is that this is not a play-land for rich boaters. The locks and dams manage water levels in four large watersheds totalling tens of thousands of square kilometers with more than 8,500 linear kilometers of shoreline. They financially, environmentally and recreationally impact the lives of several million Canadians and control water for several hydro-electric power plants. How many residents depend on this system for their drinking water supply? The central Ontario sport fishery has an annual value of $300M. There is no credit mentioned in any Parks Canada figures to the $Millions of HST on the fuel that boaters purchase when navigating the system.

Also hidden in the background is the ongoing cost of maintenance. In a system almost 2 centuries old, maintenance is going to be an ongoing and possibly increasing reality. For all of the above reasons it can’t be just shut down.

During the many regional meetings held by MP’s, most stakeholders requested improvements in hours and services, rather than cuts, and many possible sources of increased revenue generation to solve budget shortfalls were offered. Even Liberal Leader Bob Rae hosted a meeting in Rockport where his family has summered for many years.  

Bruce Stanton made the following statements before the MP’s submitted their final report to Minister Kent: “Parks Canada, like all other departments, is facing budget cuts. When each part of the parks budget begins looking at where to cut, things get more difficult. We quickly discovered, talking with businesses along the canals, this whole system is a major economic driver. Our MP group is making sure that this reality is well understood in caucus and that cuts in service hours could affect businesses much more than previously anticipated.”

 The MP group realizes that should scheduling changes occur, boaters aren’t the only ones who will be affected, with dozens of businesses and many communities along the waterway relying on canal traffic. “In many ways, it is a primary economic driver, particularly in the rural areas,” Stanton said of the Trent-Severn and Rideau Waterways.

“It may seem like an easy way to trim back until you realize how it will dampen economic activity,” he continued. “It reaches far beyond having the waterway open out of convenience.” He and his fellow canal MP’s understand this is not a taxpayer subsidy for rich boaters, but a way of life for thousands of recreational users and a water control system for thousands of square kilometers of recreational land. The PC budget savings would be miniscule compared to the economic damage to businesses, land values, and communities along the systems.

Canal system stakeholders were optimistic their concerns had been heard and awaited an answer from the Minister. It arrived in a press release from Minister Kent on October 18.

Minister Kent Announces 2013 Navigation Season for Historic Canals and Trent Severn Waterway

Ottawa, Ontario—October 18, 2012. The Honourable Peter Kent, Canadian Minister of Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, today announced the 2013 navigation season for the historic canals and the Trent Severn Waterway. “National Historic Canals are a defining feature of Canada, and provide communities and regions with beauty, recreation and a unique sense of history,” said Minister Kent. “I am pleased to announce that the 2013 navigation season will continue from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving, as in previous years.”

Parks Canada will continue providing (upon arrival) services throughout the peak summer period, and offer a modified service seven days a week through scheduled lockages in the spring and fall period. For the canal’s 2013 navigation season, Parks Canada will align its hours of operation and personal service offer to better reflect patterns of use, offering between 7 and 9 hours of service per day.

“With this decision, the canals and the surrounding communities will continue flourishing as a vibrant centre of our regions,” added Minister Kent. ”The government appreciated the constructive feedback we received from the public, and was pleased to work with the local MP’s, Mayors business leaders and stakeholders, to determine a workable schedule going forward that is affordable while minimizing the impact on the local economies and visitors.”


Relax a Little      Boaters, residents, marinas, municipalities, tourism and other businesses and all stakeholders can relax a little, knowing there will not be a shortened season for next year and hours of operation will remain adequate. There is still work to be done, as the system is not out of the woods, but there is some comfort in knowing our government does listen when enough stakeholders (voters) bring a common-sense approach to a bad economic decision. These results were achieved by an amazing joint effort of waterway stakeholders from Ottawa to Port Severn. Stay tuned.

By Robert Eaton