Friends of the Rideau want spotlight on canal

pg02-n-canalThe Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Ottawa’s principal tourist attractions. A group of heritage advocates wants more interpreters during the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017. Heather Botham, Centretown NewsThe group that advocates protection and promotion of the Rideau Canal says interpretation of the world-class heritage attraction is “woefully underfunded and understaffed” and is pressing Environment Minister and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna to do more to showcase the engineering landmark during Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations next year.

The sesquicentennial of Confederation is expected to attract visitors from across the country and around the world, and the big year will be a chance to show off some of the country’s most important historic sites.

Among them is the canal, where boat traffic is expected to increase with year-long free lockage passes to mark the 2017 celebration.

But Friends of the Rideau is concerned that an opportunity to promote the history of the 19th-century waterway could be missed due to a lack of on-site interpreters.

In a Nov. 11 open letter to McKenna, who oversees Parks Canada and thus the canal, the group argued that having interpretation staff at main stations along the canal would enrich the experience of visitors.

“We feel that this is a very important aspect to helping visitors really appreciate what a wonderful national historic site it is,” said Hunter McGill, chairman of the volunteer group and signatory of the letter.

McGill added that live interpretation would give visitors a chance to ask questions on the structure of the canal and how its lockage system works. 

“These chances will be missed if there are inadequate numbers of heritage interpretation staff to tell the story of the (canal), from Kingston to Ottawa,” he stated in the letter. 

The group believes that commemorations such as those to take place next year offer “wonderful opportunities” to present the canal as a vital component of Canada’s history.

In a previous letter to the minister sent in November 2015, McGill highlighted what he called “pressing issues regarding Parks Canada’s responsibilities for Canada’s cultural and natural heritage. 

“Friends of the Rideau shares the concerns of many volunteer organizations and a large segment of the general public that Parks Canada has lost sight of its primary mandate as the custodian of the country’s national historic sites and national parks,” he stated at the time.  

“Simply put, Parks Canada has been subject to such major budget cuts in recent years that the organization has been left significantly constrained in its capacity to fulfil its heritage protection, preservation and presentation mandates.”

The 202-kilometre canal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, a title given to sites of “outstanding universal value,” such as the Pyramids of Egypt. The canal will have operated for nearly two centuries as of 2017. 

This is some of the information McGill said he would like visitors to know so they can appreciate the whole history of the canal.

In preparation for next year, Parks Canada is planning to deploy a mobile interpretation team along the canal. This team will conduct free paddle clinics for the public and offer lock station tours at a nominal fee, said Annie Laurie, who works for the federal agency’s Rideau Canal unit.
In May, McKenna announced that $57 million will be spent on the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the canal, a commitment McGill said is welcome but also long overdue. 

“It’s really encouraging that the government has committed the money it has to the (canal),” he said. “And here is a further dimension that we hope the minister will be able to take some action on.”

In her response to the first letter, sent to the Friends in July, McKenna wrote that Parks Canada is launching its next management plan for the canal and encouraged Friends of the Rideau to take part in the consultation process.

Although the process was scheduled for last summer, it has yet to begin, McGill said. He added that Friends of the Rideau are waiting to hear from Parks Canada about the new schedule.