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Save Our Rideau
Public Engagement

Graded F

There is an active public heritage community along the Rideau Canal - people who care about the Rideau's heritage and are very knowledgeable about various heritage issues. But in recent years Parks Canada has shut out that community, opting instead for the paternal approach (we know best, we don't have to talk to you). As one heritage person put it (a former employee of Parks Canada), this hearkens back to the "bad old days of Parks Canada." This paternal approach is more expensive than working with the public and results in poorer quality programs.

You don't have to take my word for this, in 2010, Larry Osgood, Vice-President of Heritage Conservation and Commemoration at Parks Canada wrote:
Greater efforts will also have to be made to engage both local communities as well as communities of interest to make national historic sites focal points for community activity and community life and, ultimately, accessible community resources. Traditionally, staff at many sites have chosen both how and when to engage and involve these communities. At times, they have been largely excluded from site operations and activities and called upon only to participate in a given site initiative on the basis of meeting a particular requirement of Parks Canada’s, such as consultation related to management planning. For meaningful engagement of these communities to take place, this must change, and the agency must be willing to engage citizens both on their terms and on the basis of their needs and interests, as well as our own.
The George Wrights Forum, Vol. 27, No. 2, 2010, p. 167

The above makes a very good case for why Parks Canada should be doing meaningful public engagement on a regular basis. In the past, Parks Canada used several mechanisms for doing this on the Rideau Canal.

The Rideau Canal Advisory Committee (RCA) - an ad-hoc committee of Rideau "experts" serving the Superintendent of the Rideau Canal. These were members of the public with a deep knowledge base of three main aspects of Parks Canada's administration of the Rideau Canal: recreation/tourism, ecology, and cultural heritage. They also represented the geographic regions of the canal (Kingston to Ottawa). This was set up in the mid-1990s based on a recommendation from the Corridors of Change report. It met several times a year and allowed for detailed public input and discussion of issues affecting the Rideau Canal.

Participation with NGOs - in some cases, such as with Friends of the Rideau, there was a formal MOU that defined Parks Canada representation on the board and the PC rep attended every board meeting. At times it was senior management (i.e. Manager of Operations or the Superintendent) that attended the meetings. That close co-operation started to fall apart in the late 2000s with Parks Canada moving away from closely working with NGOs.

Rideau Canal Symposiums - the first symposium was done in 2001 - a joint effort of the Rideau Canal Advisory Committee and Parks Canada. It brought together members of the public as well as government (municipal, county, province, federal) in a one day event to discuss issues affecting the Rideau Canal. It raised awareness of the canal among decision makers and showed how the main values (tourism, ecology, heritage) interacted to make the Rideau a better place. The symposiums were successful in part because they were designed with both public and government input. The last such symposium was done in 2006.

Superintendent boat tours - the superintendent used to do a yearly tour of the Rideau Canal - to see the entire Rideau from the water and to visit and talk to operating staff. On many occasions, members of the public were invited to join the Superintendent on sections of this tour - a valuable way of getting public input in the field.

Management Plan Consultations - this is the only mandated public input mechanism, public input is a requirement of the management plan process. The management plan itself is tabled in parliament as a public document. Despite an initial requirement to do a management plan every 5 years, the Rideau has only seen two management plans (1996 and 2005). In both cases however a great deal of effort was made by Parks Canada to get meaningful public input.

Management Visits - once in a while, management would visit with NGOs (on their turf) and individual members of the public to discuss various issues.

Much of this was abandoned in the mid-late 2000s. The last RCAC meeting was in 2010. The last symposium was in 2006. No more boat tours. Management Plan consultations started in 2010 (when a requirement for an updated plan was that year) but then was quickly abandoned (for reasons unknown since it was still a legislated requirement to do the update at that time). In 2012 the Government of Canada changed the Parks Canada Agency Act to extend the time between plans from 5 year to 10 years. New management (after the 2012 restructuring) has exhibited very little interest in public input.

The grade up until 2016 for meaningful public engagement was a F (a clear fail). It's been elevated to a C at the moment on the strength of one new individual in Parks Canada's management who is trying to do meaningful public engagement (all on his own). This coincides with a requirement (1 year late) to do a new management plan which requires public engagement - but it seems to go deeper than that (not just a meaningless exercise). So there is a ray of sunshine but time will tell. There are still no formal mechanisms back in place (i.e. Rideau Canal Advisory Committee) - so there remains a worry that when the management plan is done, Parks will go back to its old ways of not engaging the public.









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© 2012- Ken W. Watson