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Extreme weather and Conservative extremists a perfect storm for heritage waterways

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As the summer of 2012 recedes into memory, extreme events leave their mark on the land, the water and on the institutions that for millions are part of a shared Canadian experience. In Eastern Ontario, the summer was an extreme weather event which saw a level 2 drought. The drought was serious business for farmers and a lot of crops just didn't make it to harvest. For cottagers, boaters and outdoor recreation users, water levels dropped by half a metre or more.

The hot and dry summer was a wake-up call of how close to the edge our quality of life is when the eco-system it depends upon is stressed. If you work or recreate on the land or the inland waterways from Cornwall to Ottawa to Peterborough, by the middle of summer you were hoping for rainstorms. But the perfect storm that came instead was just more dry weather and evaporating wells and lakes combined with another extremism. The Conservative extremists in the Harper government ratcheted up the heat with a slash-and-burn program of budget cuts that undermine almost 200 years of heritage, and an enduring legacy of economic, recreational and natural values in Ontario's cottage country.

Summer life in Ontario is synonymous with two magnificent water systems. From Ottawa to Kingston, the 200-kilometre Rideau Canal is a precious Canadian waterway that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Almost 200 years old, it was built by the legendary British engineer Colonel By and thousands of mostly Irish labourers in order to provide a secure route to reinforce Kingston in the case of American attacks after 1812.

Today, the canal is more or less as By built it -- an amazing network of lakes and rivers connected by 47 locks. Thousands of recreational boaters and fishers, and a dozen or more thriving communities make the canal hum with activity, while its water quality in 10 central lakes remains remarkably pristine. Its sister system is the Trent-Severn canal that winds northwest from Trenton in the Bay of Quinte through Muskoka to Georgian Bay. It too is a heritage gem that is a defining feature of Ontario cottage country. Both canal systems have been neglected, but are now reeling from a frontal assault by the Harper government which has nothing but disdain for their protector and manager, Parks Canada.

The blunt instrument that the Conservatives are wielding against the canals are 19 per cent operating budget cuts on each system -- a disproportionate share of the overall 6 per cent cut to Parks Canada. The result is crumbling infrastructure and operational cuts proposed for 2013, shortening the open season for the canal by a month or more. Needless to say it will result in more job cuts, both for the full-time lock crews and the hundreds of students that rely on summer jobs.

The political fall-out is beginning to get traction. The rural communities and tourism businesses along the canals that mostly voted Conservative are not impressed with the cuts. Nor do they think much of Environment Minister Peter Kent's trial balloon of a special fee for tourism operators to pay for Parks Canada operations. In August, some of these business and property owners packed the Portland community hall in the Conservative riding of Lanark Frontenac for a town hall with Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who happens also to be a summer resident on the Rideau.

For some in the community, the unthinkable attacks on the canals are a game changer. Heritage and environmental volunteers associated with the "Friends of the Rideau" for many years worked with Parks Canada to promote the canal. They have now established a website -- www.SaveOurRideau.ca -- with more information by far about the issues on the canals than has been provided by the hapless Parks Canada.

Part of the searing critique on SaveOurRideau is "the dumbing of Parks Canada" resulting from the elimination of heritage and environmental expertise. Other information is being posted by the union that represents the federal lock workers, Public Service Alliance of Canada, and they have launched a petition campaign.

The Conservative calculation is that none of this adds up to more than summer chatter and that like so many groups and institutions that they have knee-capped, the Rideau and Trent Severn Canals will be forgotten or ignored. That may well be the immediate case as we gird for the next omnibus bill and summer causes are stored away with sandals and bathing suits. In a few weeks we will be thinking about whether and for how long the canal will freeze.

Ottawa is about the only place I have ever been where a warm winter is an extreme weather event that most people will complain bitterly about. But when the ice comes off the canals and we return next year to the Rideau and Trent Severn, the Conservatives may well find that the canals are more important than they think. Those who know and love the canals are hoping for a good winter that leaves an ample snow pack. And they will be ready to come out swinging at the Conservative extremists who are now seen as a threat to the heritage waterways which, unlike Harper, have the support of the great majority.

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