Parks Canada: How to create discontent, then muzzle it

Parks Canada employees have received letters warning them not to criticize the federal government. The letter warns that such criticism is a violation of Parks Canada’s code of ethics, and reminds employees of their “duty of loyalty.”

The letter has sparked the very thing it sought to suppress — criticism. Critics suggest that the government is trying to muzzle public servants, and has effectively issued a gag order to Parks Canada employees.

I admit that the duty of public servants is somewhat tricky in this regard. According to Parks Canada’s code of ethics, “All Parks Canada employees must work within the laws of Canada and demonstrate political neutrality, as well as support for the agenda and objectives of the Government of Canada and the objectives of the Parks Canada Agency, as they undertake the responsibilities of their position” (emphasis mine).

However, the code of ethics also explains that: “All Parks Canada employees must be open and honest in their dealings with the public, stakeholders and other organizations.” And it’s also important to note that these employees are charged to “protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole.”

And even though these employees effectively work for the government, they are also citizens, and they have rights, such as freedom of expression. The letter acknowledges this, though only in the context of “exceptional circumstances.”

Regardless, this week’s stern warning has public servants concerned. After all, this letter comes as the government passes their omnibus budget (first reading), which effectively kills the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. The National Round Table was cut, in part, for going against government policy by recommending that the government consider implementing a carbon tax to address climate change (in a report that the Conservatives themselves commissioned). Back in May, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird let slip: “Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax? It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government” (emphasis mine).

When one’s actions have led to discontent or even dissent, one can either engage with that dissent, or muzzle it. The Conservatives seem prone to choosing the latter.

So, why might Parks Canada employees feel compelled to criticize the federal government? This year’s federal austerity measures have sliced Parks Canada’s budget by $29 million, resulting in 638 confirmed jobs cut (out of 1,689 affected notices).

Head conservator positions across the country have been reduced from 33 to 8. Parks Canada’s Education Outreach Program is now gone. Interpretive staff will be replaced by self-guided tours at 27 National Historic Sites. All three positions at the Historical Research Branch that relate to First Nations’ culture, history, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes have been cut. Critics are also warning about the effect this will have on small businesses that benefit from Parks Canada-related tourism, particularly rural communities.

One concerned archaeologist has described how the cuts have devastated Parks Canada’s archaeological program.* Museums and labs across the country are closing, and their collections moved to Ottawa, which means that aboriginal communities across the country are losing access to their cultural artifacts, and thus another connection to their history. It was a decision that both academic and aboriginal groups have said came without any consultation.

[*For a taste of what these cuts look like on the ground, here are the numbers for archaeology: In BC, both archaeologist positions will be lost by September, leaving zero archaeologists on the Pacific Coast. In the prairies, both the Calgary and Winnipeg labs are closing, their artifacts going to Ottawa, and only 3 of 10 archaeology positions will be left in Western and Northern regions (6 of 7 archaeologists lost in Alberta). In Ontario, the Cornwall lab is closing, its artifacts going to Ottawa, and 6 of 7 archaeology positions lost (and the one left reduced to seasonal work). In Quebec, 10 of 12 archaeology positions are lost, and the one collections manager and three conservators are all relocated to Ottawa. On the East Coast, the Halifax lab is closing, with all Atlantic artifacts going to Ottawa, and 8 of 10 archaeologists lost. In the Arctic, the one remaining archaeologist may be cut. And at the head office in Ottawa, 4 of 8 archaeology policy positions are lost at the Archaeological Services Branch, Archaeology Policy no longer has a voice at the management table, and all 5 researches are gone from the Material Culture Section.]

Why is Parks Canada important? In short, Parks Canada employees do so much more than just point you toward a good day hike and clean up the crap you leave behind at your campsite. They are involved in protection, conservation, and research of our wildlife and their habitats. This is no small thing. They also protect, restore, and document our historical sites and artifacts. They are vital to Canada’s internal and external tourism industry. They interact with and educate the public about Canada’s wild spaces and historical sites, enriching our connection to both our environment and our history.

And if they feel like their employer is keeping them from doing all of this, if they are seeing how budget cuts are threatening the conservation of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, they should be allowed to say something, publicly — to sound the alarm so the rest of us can find out what’s going on.

**

Here are some selections from the letter:

“Given our current circumstances, I would like to remind you, as an employee of the Parks Canada Agency, of your obligations regarding public expression, whether through the media (including social media), large meetings or in other forums. This is of particular significance with respect to the streamlining measures announced in the most recent federal budget.”

“I am aware that during this time of significant transition, the concept of loyalty can have a very particular meaning. However, as employees of the public sector, our duty is to support the elected government.”

“The duty of loyalty to the Agency is reflected in the Parks Canada Agency code of ethics and applies to all members of the Parks Canada team at all times. The duty of loyalty includes the duty to refrain from public criticism of the Government of Canada when speaking as an employee of the agency. Breaching the duty of loyalty may lead to disciplinary action.”

“Parks Canada has spokespersons who are designated to speak to the media. Should a journalist request your comments on a budget-related issue, suggest that the question be directed to your external relations manager.”

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