Cuts more than skin deep

Parks Canada guide, Sylvie, greeted our tour group to Beaumont-Hamel, this past spring.

As we arrived, she emerged from the information pavilion. She wore her identifiable green uniform, complete with department identification and Maple Leaf insignia. She offered a warm welcome and explained she would be our guide for the next half-hour. She was a long way from home, but made us feel as if we had never left Canada.

“Welcome to the Beaumont-Hamel National Historic Site,” the young woman said. I learned later her name was Sylvie, a student from Winnipeg, and that she was employed for several months by Parks Canada to guide visitors around the site.

This was a few weeks ago, when the tour I was leading across France stopped at this famous battlefield of the First World War. Because Beaumont-Hamel was the place where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was decimated during the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) in the Great War, of course, the site has significance for Canadians. But because Sylvie is in the employ of Parks Canada (likely for minimum wage) and works there to learn while in the service of her country, I was deeply impressed by her passion and knowledge.

Her minimal salary and maximum commitment came to mind this week as we received word that the Harper government plans to cut up to 638 civil service jobs in the Parks Canada department. I haven’t been able to determine if Sylvie’s job is among the planned cuts, but I am angry that whatever part of Parks Canada’s budget is slashed, I think, the federal government may be cutting off its nose to spite its face. The minister in charge, former broadcaster now Environment Minister Peter Kent, claimed that putting 1,600 Parks Canada employees on notice that their jobs could disappear, was fiscally responsible.

“The changes we are making,” he told the CBC, “ensure that staff are (at the park sites) when the most visitors come to our parks.”

Doesn’t cause and effect work the other way? Keep historic sites open and Canadians will come?

Lock masters along the Trent-Severn waterway may soon be laid off.

But Canadians won’t have to go all the way to Beaumont-Hamel in France to feel the impact of diminished service at historic sites and national parks. All of the people who operate the locks along the Trent-Severn and Rideau Canal systems received notice that their jobs may well be cut by the Flaherty budget.

That means those who wish to sail from the Georgian Bay to the Ottawa River this summer may find their boats high and dry, not to mention the scores of Ontario communities that depend on the flow of tourist traffic to offset slower off-season business. As rabidly anti-government bureaucracy as some people in these communities may be, I suspect they won’t soon forget losses to their business bottom line.

Planned cuts have apparently arrived on another front, if you will. Just two weeks ago, we learned that the Harper government had also made cuts to another vital line of defence – literally.

Pat Stogran in battle dress during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2002. Canadian Press photo.

Members of a branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, in Whitehorse, Yukon, revealed (April 19) that as many as 100 case workers – the civil servants at Veterans Affairs who help veterans gain access to programs and services – were being cut across the country. Pat Stogran the veterans’ ombudsman (also let go by the federal government nearly two years ago) indicated his disgust over the loss of those services.

“Afghanistan is out of the sight and mind of the public now. We’re all heaving a collective sigh of relief. We’re glad that’s over with,” he told the CBC. “But it’s the tsunami that’s coming after the earthquake that is going to impact.”

Stogran went on to say that the flow of servicemen and women from overseas home to Canada will place additional stress on case work, a service he said was essential for veterans. I don’t mean to be fast and loose with statistics, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that (on May 1), Walter Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, admitted to a Senate defence committee that 20 Canadian Forces personnel committed suicide in 2011, a figure that is up from 12 in 2010. Other stats ferreted out of Defence Department documents show another 31 Canadian vets attempted suicide in 2011.

Cuts to the public service may prove optically appropriate to the fiscally conservative politician and/or voter. But in at least two vital areas of Canadian heritage – historic sites and service veterans – such political decision-making may inflict more harm than good.

Oh, and did I mention that on the same day it announced cuts to the federal civil service, the federal government trumpeted its plans to have Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visit New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Ontario later this month – approximate cost, $1 million.

I think I’d protect guides’ jobs at Beaumont-Hamel, lock masters along the Rideau and case workers for vets over another Royal Visit.


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