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Save Our Rideau
Operating the Canal

Graded B-

The Rideau Canal is a very large, multi-layered operation. At its core is operating the canal, as a navigation way, during the operating season and to provide water control for the entire year. The Rideau Canal is a man-made environment, every section has been flooded to one degree or another due to the slackwater construction, and it is government responsibility to maintain that environment. The canal itself must also be maintained, a difficult job for a system opened in 1832, a system with many of its original structures still intact.

The reason Parks Canada is operating the canal and not the Department of Transport goes back to Canada's centennial in 1967, when the true heritage value of the Rideau, and several other canals was recognized. In 1972, the Rideau and several other historic canals were transferred from the Department of Transport to Parks Canada with the directive that there be "a shift in emphasis in the management of the canal systems from "transportation" to historic restoration, preservation and interpretation; natural environmental preservation and interpretation and the optimum use of federal lands." This added another operational layer, the cultural and ecological integrity of the Rideau Canal.

During the battles in 2012-2013 regarding fees and operating hours, the Rideau was characterized as being a waterway that simply catered to rich boaters. Even the top management of Parks Canada was spouting this false concept, in the argument about fees one top official in Parks Canada stated "that means taxpayers are subsidizing recreational boaters." This showed a complete lack of understanding of who boaters are and what they represent to the canal.

Firstly, boaters are visitors to the canal and they should be treated as such (in the same way land-based visitors are treated). The Commemorative Integrity requirement for Public Education applies as much to boaters as it does land based visitors. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, boats going through locks are the only time they, and land based visitors, get to see a lock in operation. It is the operation of a lock that is a key component of heritage interpretation. It's a component that Parks Canada doesn't have to actually work at - every time a boat is locked through, the operation and engineering of a 19th century lock is being demonstrated. Interpretation of that process is of course also required, but that interpretation only works when a boat passes through a lock.

The staff at lockstations are excellent. Most are friendly and treat boaters as visitors. If canal operations was simply being graded on how the lock staff perform, it would likely have received an A. As an example, here is a quote from an American boater that I received in 2018: "Lockkeepers are the best we've encountered in several countries including France, England, Scotland, and Holland. They were helpful, knowledgeable, and extremely friendly"

We still have a problem with hours. We're still not back to pre-2012 hours. The canal also operates on a one-size fits all basis when it comes to hours, a personal belief is that we'd be better off with extended hours at the high demand locations - something that will hopefully be considered with the free lockage in 2017 (which is going to strain parts of the system).

Water management has gone through a bit an unnecessary learning curve with the restructuring. The southern Rideau saw spring flooding in 2014 that shouldn't have happened (water levels in the lakes were brought up too early - eliminating the spring freshet reservoir capacity). The Rideau water control systems do work well when properly managed and it seems to be getting better (back to the way it used to be). Public communication could be better (i.e. live stream on the PC website of water levels for the entire system) - although level warnings are being communicated. So a B+ for that at present.

Operating the canal to maintain cultural and ecological integrity remains a problem in the post-2012 period. The management skill sets for that have been eliminated and Parks Canada's HQ still seems to view the Rideau as a simple recreational waterway. So a C for that aspect of operations.

An overall grade of B- because core operations are generally excellent but operating the Rideau Canal as a National Historic of Canada and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is presently being ignored.

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© 2012- Ken W. Watson