OTTAWA - Several of Canada's national parks, long celebrated by the federal government as an "integral part of the Canadian identity," have shut down winter services because of budget cuts.
The move, which followed a $29.2-million funding reduction, has forced some rural communities to do their own snow clearing with Parks Canada machines in order to continue participating in activities and attracting tourists.
In contrast to the winter parks cuts, meanwhile, the government has announced $3.9 million in grants over the past two years to help snowmobile clubs in Quebec buy new trail-grooming equipment and boost local tourism.
Affected national parks include Point Pelee in southern Ontario, Riding Mountain in Manitoba, Prince Albert in Saskatchewan and Elk Island in Alberta. The parks are technically open, but access points and trails are unplowed, visitor centres closed, and emergency services sparse.
In Forillon National park in Quebec's Gaspe region, Parks Canada agreed this week to allow the local municipality and province pay for workers to operate the machines. Just 14 months ago, the federal government contributed $115,000 to a major cross-country ski event, La Grande Traversee de la Gaspesie, which uses the park's trails.
At Kejimkujik in Nova Scotia, the only entrance into the park was barricaded in the fall, with the parking lot and roads left unplowed. The visitor centre was closed at Thanksgiving, and won't reopen until Victoria Day weekend.
Parks Canada had introduced popular back-country winter camping in the park with semi-permanent huts called yurts last year, but that project appears to have been abandoned.
"Basically, you can't get into the park unless you walk a long way. As far as most people are concerned, once that barricade goes up, the park is useless," said Colin Mudle, a retired telecom technician who hikes in the park several times a week during the winter.
Parks Canada said budget constraints forced them to evaluate how much the parks were actually being used during the off-season. He said some people like the concept of the park being open in the winter, but don't actually use it.
"What are the services that people are asking us to give, how many are actually participating in it, and then we have a decision to make," said Andrew Campbell, vice-president of visitor experience.
"Does this actually make sense to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a service that is offered to a couple of hundred people?"
But Nancy Wood-Archer, owner of the Hawood Inn inside of Prince Albert National Park, disagrees with the characterization of the parks as poorly used during the winter.
"The three year-round businesses in our community are all owned and run by Saskatchewan families," said Wood-Archer.
"It is very disconcerting that our government will abandon their commitment to us and see another small community close down. Considering a large percentage of our clientele in the winter are farmers and other seasonal-type employees, it is very wrong that when it is their time to relax and spend time in our parks, we close."
Park users and local businesses near the national parks have mounted petitions, held protests in skis and snowshoes dubbed "Occupy Winter," and pressured local MPs to restore the services.
Celes Davar, who runs an adventure tour company near Riding Mountain National Park, said the main grievance was the lack of consultation with the surrounding rural community before the change was announced.
"Because Riding Mountain is entirely surrounded by agriculture, and communities, these are loyal groups of winter users who really come out of the woodwork as soon as there's snow," said Davar, who is using his own money to winterize shelters in the park.
"The dilemma was suddenly that one of their most important ways of relating to Riding Mountain National Park had been pulled from underneath them."
Local communities around Riding Mountain and Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan were so intent on using the parks, they convinced Parks Canada to allow volunteers to operate federal trail grooming machines. In Prince Albert, that means 50 km out of 180 km will be groomed, according to Wood-Archer.
Emergency services are another matter.
"During the period from November 1, 2012 — April 30, 2013, emergency services may be unavailable, limited or significantly delayed," reads a warning on the Riding Mountain National Park website.
In Quebec's Forillion National Park, the decision to reduce services carried a more visceral, emotional reaction. When the park was established in the 1970s, many homes were expropriated.
Parks Canada celebrated in December the fact that it has distributed 4,400 free passes to the families and descendents of those displaced, resulting in 9,000 visits over the past year.
But neither the families, nor the local community were consulted on the cuts to services at the park, according to local NDP MP Philip Toone.
"A lot of people got displaced to put this park in place, and when the federal government doesn't put enough money into the park, people take it personally," said Toone.
"Not only do they get kicked out of their own homes, but the trade-off was this was a good thing for the region. Well, if it's such a good thing for the region, why is the federal government abandoning it?"
Parks Canada said they were unable to provide a full list of the affected parks to The Canadian Press because of the decentralized nature of the system.