Environment Minister Peter Kent openly talked about the potential fees this week, while also suggesting that a plan to cut the operating hours of those sites — in some cases by half — could be reversed or scaled back.
Kent made the comments after meeting with municipal leaders from 13 communities along Ontario's historic Rideau Canal system.
"There are quite a few beneficiaries along the Rideau Canal system, as in our national parks, who in this context pay absolutely nothing for the privilege of operating those businesses," Kent said.
"Whereas in the national parks there are franchise fees to be paid by those who benefit economically."
One of those attending Tuesday's meeting with Kent was Doug Struthers, the mayor of Merrickville-Wolford, Ont. Struthers said the minister never spoke at the gathering about the possibility of charging fees to commercial operators on the canal. And he said such a move could pit local businesses against each other.
"It would be an interesting conversation, I'm sure," he said. "Nobody likes to have a fee to be in business."
The meeting focused on the government's current plan to cut back the canal's hours of operation, and its potentially devastating impact on local businesses. Kent acknowledged that he heard the concern loud and clear.
"The initial inclination was to reduce operating hours on the shoulder periods, in the early spring and the late fall," Kent said.
"The mayors have been very effective . . . in communicating that there would be significant impact economically."
No decisions have been made, however, and Kent was merely being frank about his discussions with communities and businesses that would be affected by any changes, said spokesman Adam Sweet, who stressed Thursday that the minister is not advocating charging new fees.
The plan to trim operating hours is still scheduled to go ahead in the spring, Sweet added.
A number of measures are also being considered to boost revenues and cut the cost of running the parks and other national tourist attractions.
While he didn't specify who might be asked to pay fees, Kent suggested to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday that businesses operating in proximity to the Parks Canada canal systems in Ontario and Quebec may have an unfair advantage over those within federal jurisdiction.
"We do have to do some out-of-the-box thinking," he said. "We can't treat the canals as a free ride for some of those who do benefit significantly."
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents many businesses that could be affected by new fees, pointed out that all firms currently pay license fees to operate, whether it's to the federal government, municipalities or regulating bodies.
The minister's comments also left union and municipal leaders scratching their heads, and urging the government to talk with them in advance of any proposed changes.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Parks Canada employees, implored the minister to think twice about measures that would hurt the economies of communities that derive much of their livelihoods from the parks system.
"We do not support the idea of charging businesses additional fees," said Chris Aylward, the union's national executive vice president. "Nor do we believe that cutting these jobs, and hours for workers in these communities, makes any sense."
Aylward said PSAC has been offering for months to speak with the minister or his staff about their ideas for trimming costs.
Parks Canada operates a number of federally protected parks, marine conservation areas and dozens of historic sites across the country. The agency has been struggling to maintain operations under tight budget constraints while dealing with declining use over the past decade. PSAC, however, said that boater use of the Rideau Canal, as just one example, has been up sharply in recent months.
Several cost-saving measures have been adopted by Parks Canada in the wake of the federal budget in March. However, a decision to cut operating hours was delayed for one year after businesses complained about how they would be impacted.
Cuts to parks programs, and the resulting loss of jobs, have already hurt communities that depend on the tourist dollars that the national sites attract, said John Borrowman, the mayor of Canmore, Alta., which lies directly southeast of Banff National Park.
"A lot of our residents actually own and operate businesses within the park," Borrowman said. "The significant cut in funding to Parks Canada has already had a negative impact to the town of Canmore."
He predicted that a shortening of the operating season for the park would only make matters worse in the long run.
As for the possibility of fees being levied against businesses in close proximity to the national parks, Borrowman — who also operates a pottery studio — was succinct.
"It doesn't work for me, and I know it won't work for any of my fellow business people in Canmore."
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