OTTAWA – The federal NDP says cuts to winter services at national parks are out of step with the mandate of Parks Canada to increase exposure to the country’s wilderness.
But Environment Minister Peter Kent says the cuts make financial sense as very few people use the outdoor spaces in the winter months.
Parks Canada has stopped providing services like trail clearing or visitors centres in the winter as the result of a $29.2-million budget cut to the agency.
At some parks, volunteer groups or local governments have helped pick up some of the slack, while at others there is no service at all — even though the parks are technically open.
NDP MP Anne Minh Thu Quach says the move runs counter to the Tory government’s pledge to create jobs, given that unpaid labour is now doing government work.
But Kent tells a House of Commons committee that the agency is doing its part like all others to reduce government spending, and that the cuts allow it to focus services when the most people are there.
The affected parks include Point Pelee in southern Ontario, Riding Mountain in Manitoba, Prince Albert in Saskatchewan and Elk Island in Alberta.
Visitor numbers at parks have been on the decline for years, but the head of Parks Canada says he believes the tide is turning.
Alan Latourelle told MPs visits this past summer were up four per cent at parks and seven per cent at national historic sites.
Meanwhile, Kent says the government does want to find ways to encourage young and new Canadians to get outside more, pointing to the creation of a new urban park just outside Toronto as one element of that plan.
“It’s also a big part of Parks Canada’s very successful program, ‘Learn to Camp,'” Kent told the committee.
“Across the country for the past couple of years, young people and their families — many new Canadians who associate tents most often with refugee circumstances — are encouraged to leave the urban centres where very often they first arrive in Canada and to experience the great Canadian outdoors.”