[Recorded by Electronic Apparatus]
Thursday, March 20, 1997
The Chairman (Mr. Clifford Lincoln (Lachine - Lac-Saint-Louis, Lib.)): Order, please.
Today, we have the pleasure of welcoming the Auditor General and his colleagues. During this meeting, we will be dealing with chapter 31 of the Auditor General's Report: Canadian Heritage - Parks Canada.
The report has been submitted to committee members. It is very succinct. I think that the issues are very clearly presented, and I would like to congratulate the Auditor General and his colleagues who worked on the report - Mr. Lalonde and Mr. Ruthnum - for having done such an excellent job.
I had the opportunity of working on most of the Banff-Bow Valley study, which was a major undertaking. As you know, the study had been commissioned by the current minister's predecessor, Mr. Dupuy, and was structured along the same broad lines as yours.
It is high time that we examine the whole issue of ecosystem-based management of our parks, as well as related issues like services, visitors, industrial development, the way in which all these factors affect parks ecosystems and wildlife, and how we can ensure that parks are preserved for future generations.
You have also looked at the issue of completing the parks system by the year 2000, as promised. I was also very interested to learn that you had touched on recreational canals, like the Trent and Rideau canals, and come to the conclusion that we were not generating enough revenue to maintain them, among other things. You have dealt with their use and with the issue of whether taxpayers should be paying more to use parks. This idea has been put forward by some of my colleagues, who are firm believers in it.
These two issues are extremely important to us. The committee is trying to provide some guidelines for the Department of Heritage Canada. We are extremely happy to have you here today, and I would invite you to make any comments you have, after which committee members will have questions for you.
Mr. L. Denis Desautels, (Auditor General of Canada): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am especially grateful for your very encouraging comments. As you said, I am here with Mr. Harry Ruthnum, Principal, Audit Operations, and Mr. Robert Lalonde, Assistant Auditor General. They are both responsible for our work with Parks Canada and Heritage Canada.
Today, if I may, Mr. Chairman, I'll deal very quickly, first, with chapter 31, entitled ``Preserving Canada's Natural Heritage''. Then I'll move on quickly to chapter 32, ``Management of Historic Canals''.
Chapter 31, ``Preserving Canada's Natural Heritage'', focused on the systems and processes Parks Canada had in place to maintain, enhance, and report on two components of the program: protection of the ecological integrity, and new park establishment.
The National Parks Act states:
The Banff and Bow Valley study report presented to the Minister of Canadian Heritage in October 1996 will help Parks Canada identify and address issues facing Banff National Park, as well as other areas of the national parks system.
In our opinion, the following areas are important to preserve the ecological integrity of national parks. First is knowledge about ecological conditions in national parks. In other words, biophysical information needs to be improved, and measurable goals of ecological integrity need to be set. Then Parks Canada expects to attract more visitors for longer stays in national parks. So management needs to improve its understanding of the impact of visitor use of national parks and determine the level of use that park ecosystems can sustain. Third, management and ecosystem conservation plans need to be updated more regularly to respond to changing environments, and to ensure that these plans are up to date with Parks Canada's current ecosystems-based policies and guidelines.
The federal government's goal is to complete the national parks system by representing each of the 39 terrestrial natural regions in the system of national parks by the year 2000. Each national park is to represent the biological and physical characteristics found in its natural region and contribute to maintaining the area's ecosystems in as healthy a state as possible.
The following significant observations were reported in our chapter:
-Of the 39 natural regions, 24 are currently represented by a national park. Since 1990, four new national parks have been established, all of which were underway before 1990. Given the rate of progress in creating new national parks to date, the national parks system may not be completed as planned by the year 2000.
-Second, one challenge that Parks Canada must overcome to successfully negotiate new national parks agreements is the need to obtain the support of provincial and territorial governments, Aboriginal people, and local communities. Parks Canada needs to assign more priority to securing such support.
-Third, a number of candidate sites for national parks remain open to industrial development activities. We are concerned that these activities could harm the ecosystems and wildlife habitat that national parks are trying to protect, and impair their value as wilderness reserves.
-Fourth, the National Parks Act requires the federal government to administer and control surface and sub-surface rights within the legislated boundaries of newly created national parks. The goal of the federal government is to represent each of the 39 natural regions with a national park where the federal government owns the land. In several natural regions, the provincial government will not transfer candidate national park sites to the federal government. The need for the federal government to own the land limits alternatives. We believe that flexibility is required on the issue of ownership of specific sites if all natural regions are to be represented on time and at a reasonable cost.
The National Parks Act requires Parks Canada to report on the state of the ecological conditions in national parks and on progress made toward establishing new national parks. This information is to be reported at least once every two years through the State of the Parks Report. But Parks Canada did not meet its statutory requirement to table a State of the Parks Report in 1992.
We recommend that the State of the Parks Report be tabled in Parliament within the time requirements stated in the National Parks Act. The quality of its information should also be improved to present a fair picture of the ecological integrity of national parks and the progress achieved in completing the national parks system.
Now, Parks Canada has agreed to most of our recommendations, Mr. Chairman, and we understand that it's preparing an action plan to address these issues. So in conclusion on this part, we can state that Parks Canada has a good understanding of how national parks should be managed in order to preserve their ecological integrity. The guiding principles and operating policies developed in 1994 are a good example of this. However, as I indicated earlier, Parks Canada needs to make improvements in order to attain its fundamental objective of preserving Canada's natural heritage.
Now, Mr. Chairman, I'd like to move to chapter 32.
Chapter 32 - Management of Historic Canals examined the extent to which the canals are managed in an efficient and cost-effective manner, and whether useful and reliable performance information is available to canal management and to Parliament.
The canals were originally constructed for commercial transportation. Today, they are used primarily for recreational activities and historic appreciation. When the government transferred the canals in the 1970s from the Department of Transport, it directed that there be a shift in emphasis from transportation to historic restoration, interpretation and natural environment reservation.
Navigation continues to consume the major part of both capital and operating resources, while interpretation and recreation receive the lowest level of resources. Taxpayers are therefore paying the major portion of expenses incurred to provide a private benefit to boaters. Reviews conducted over the past 11 years have reached similar conclusions.
Navigation serves a limited and declining market. Our concern is that navigation services have not been tailored to meet user needs. The canals now operate for five months. However, 80% of boaters use them during July and August only. The department could reduce operating costs by approximately 45% by shortening the operating season to these two months.
Canal management has indicated that it is not possible to increase boater revenue. Since 1990, lockage and mooring revenue from boaters has declined by 6.5%, due to a reduction in the number of boaters.
To operate within lower appropriation levels, canal management needs to operate more cost-effectively by assessing user needs and targeting its services to meet those needs.
Valid and reliable information was not available for making fundamental decisions about canal operations. Among other things, Parks Canada does not have adequate financial information for the establishment of user fees; visitor surveys to support assumptions with respect to services; adequate information on the economic impact of the canals; or a reliable visitor data system for either boaters or land-based visitors.
And Parliament does not receive quantitative or qualitative information on the benefit Canadians are deriving from the operation of these canals.
An issue also has been raised with respect to whether Parks Canada has a statutory obligation to maintain navigation services along the canals. Over the years the Department of Justice has provided legal opinions on various aspects of this requirement. In our view, these opinions do not provide enough guidance on Parks Canada's obligation. In light of new fiscal realities, Parks Canada's obligation to provide for navigation needs to be reviewed.
Mr. Chairman, I've emphasized areas where we've identified problems, because they highlight useful lessons that can be applied to improve the cost-effectiveness of canal operations and accountability to Parliament. I would encourage your committee to explore how these will be dealt with in the context of the separate service agency that will eventually manage the parks program.
Mr. Chairman, it's our practice to follow up on such actions two years after our initial report, and we plan to report the results of our follow-up in November 1998. In the interim, this committee may wish to seek clarification from the department on specific actions it's taking to address our recommendations.
I thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I hope that the explanation of our audit of Parks Canada was helpful to your committee. We would be pleased to answer any questions members may have.
The Chairman: Thank you, Mr. Desautels.
Mr. de Savoye.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye (Portneuf, B.Q.): Mr. Desautels, this is a very interesting report. Today, we are looking at two chapters - parks and canals. I would like to begin with canals, if you don't mind.
One thing that struck me in your report is the statement on page 32-14 of the English version where you state that taxpayers are paying the major portion of expenses to provide a private benefit to boaters.
Would there be some way of assessing the economic spin-offs of using these canals? As I understand it, the canals are unused or under-used for most of the year, and very crowded for two months of the year. This is obviously seasonal.
You say that the benefit is only to boaters. Is that really the case? Don't the canals and locks attract tourists, who in their turn create environmental jobs?
Have you had any opportunity to assess that, and is it something worth considering?
Mr. Desautels: There is no doubt that, by their very presence, the canals can generate other economic spin-offs. We have said there is a lack of data in the department. In fact, we have pointed out that the department did not have enough data to do an accurate breakdown of the economic spin-offs generated by the canals.
So it becomes difficult to come up with a fee system that is both logical and which corresponds to the benefits derived by everyone from the operation of the canals.
I would ask Mr. Ruthnum to elaborate on this.
Mr. Harry Ruthnum (Principal, Audit Operations, Office of the Auditor General of Canada): We were expecting the department to have done economic studies that clearly demonstrated the economic spin-offs of historic locks and canals. Unfortunately, we saw no such economic study. That was our observation.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: In paragraph 21 of your brief, you state that Parliament does not receive quantitative or qualitative information on the benefits Canadians are deriving from the operation of these canals. I agree with you completely. We do not have that information.
But what surprises me is that your sentence stops there. The benefits derived from the operations of these canals is the past and the present. If we take a marketing approach, a forward-looking approach, we could review the economic, social and cultural benefits, that Canadians would derive if the canals were used differently and more effectively. Have you had any opportunity to discuss possible changes to the way they are used?
Mr. Ruthnum: No, we did not discuss outlook. What we were looking for was relevant information, particularly on the operation of the canals. How much does it cost to operate them? What are the economic benefits? How are appropriations for operating the canals distributed? Unfortunately, we did not find that information in Part III of the Main Estimates, and we had to contact the department. That is the information we were looking for.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: I'd like to give you an example that will illustrate what I have been saying about the importance of a forward-looking approach.
In my riding, there is a forest station called Duchesnay, which comes under Quebec government jurisdiction. The station has a cross-country centre. In 1984, the fee for using skiing facilities was $3 a person. Parking was free, and the place was crowded.
Management of the ski centre was transferred to SEPAQ, which hiked the fee up to $7 a person and started compiling statistics. They saw that the number of users was going down, and eventually stopped maintaining all the trails. So fewer trails were maintained, and even fewer people came. In 1993, they closed the centre down.
The neighbouring municipality of Sainte-Catherine decided to take over. The municipality brought the user fee back down to $3 a head, opened all the trails again, and by the end of the year cleared $25,000 in profit.
What I'm trying to say, Mr. Desautels, is that numbers are of course important, but that a promising vision of the future, and a better use of facilities, is perhaps even more important. Don't you feel that Parks Canada should be making every effort to use all its equipment and facilities to the fullest? This would lead to better social, cultural and economic benefit, surely.
Mr. Desautels: I agree with the basic theory put forward by Mr. de Savoye. And I know Duchesnay Park extremely well, since I have done cross-country skiing there myself. Of course we have to find a balance between the fee per head and the number of visitors. That is a basic marketing principle. And not only do you have to set the right fee, you also have to provide something attractive that will make people want to pay the fee.
For myself, I fully agree with the notion of increasing the number of visitors to canals, and at the same time - if possible - increasing revenue from canal use as well as other economic spin-offs. To my mind, the two go hand in hand.
But nothing we have said in this chapter would prevent this. All we are pointing out to members of this committee and of the House is that, at present, there is a considerable disparity between the cost of maintaining the canals and the revenue generated from users.
There are questions of principle flowing from that, of course, but there is also an economic issue to be dealt with. There is a disparity between these two figures, and we have to decide whether we want to maintain that disparity or try to reduce it. I would also add that Treasury Board and the government as a whole have issued directives to encourage organizations like Parks Canada and its historic canals to recover part of the cost of providing a particular service from users of that service when appropriate.
The issues raised in this chapter are not things we have invented. We are trying to assess the department's performance on the basis of policies put forward by Treasury Board.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: To my mind, this approach is the old Hygrade hot dog commercial in reverse - the less we use it all, the more it degrades. A quick, simple and short-sighted response by Parks Canada could be to recover full cost of services from users with the result - since it was costing them more - that users would stop using the facilities. There is your downward spiral and the facilities are abandoned.
But there is a different approach. Use of the canal could be made more attractive, perhaps by adding other attractions. This would increase the number of users and make it possible to put operations into the black. There are two ways of going about it: either you charge a higher rate to fewer users, or you charge the same rate to a greater number of users. My background in business tells me that this is a business opportunity, not something that should be left to the client. And I fear, Mr. Desautels, that your report will trigger the easy response, rather than the daring response.
The Chairman: Time for a brief response, Mr. Desautels.
Mr. Desautels: I have a very brief response. In chapter 32, paragraph 32.36, we encourage Parks Canada to re-examine its options and develop a realistic strategy and action plan. I hope that our recommendations will not have the result you fear. What we are saying in this chapter in fact corresponds quite well to the approach you seem to favour.
The Chairman: Mr. O'Brien.
Mr. Pat O'Brien (London - Middlesex, Lib.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The Chairman: Excuse me. Mr. Peric has asked to go first.
Mr. Janko Peric (Cambridge, Lib.): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Desautels, in your statement on page 2, paragraph 6, you state that in your opinion ``Knowledge about ecological conditions in national parks (e.g. biophysical information) needs to be improved''. Then further down it says ``Management and ecosystem conservation plans need to be updated more regularly to respond to changing environments''. Could you be a little bit more specific?
Mr. Ruthnum: Mr. Chairman, what we've said basically is that the knowledge about biophysical information needs to be improved.
We have in fact provided examples of what has to be done. The first one is on page 31-9 of our report, exhibit 31.1. They need to have established indicators of ecological integrity. This is vital for them to manage their ecological integrity in the national parks. The exhibit shows very clearly that they need to establish indicators.
The Chairman: What you're talking about, just for the sake of the members who might question it, is the capacity of the ecosystem of the park to sustain a load of sorts, to sustain itself into the long term. That's what you're talking about.
Mr. Ruthnum: Yes. Basically the mandate is to maintain the parks for the use and enjoyment of future generations. In order to do so, they have to have proper policies to manage their ecological integrity. In order to manage their ecological integrity they have to have proper systems in place. In order to do this, the proper information deals primarily with the biophysical information, which means, first of all, what comprises the flora and the fauna, and secondly, how they manage this if there are stresses that are impairing the ecological integrity of the national parks.
Mr. Janko Peric: If we ask Parks Canada if they could manage that with the present budget, they would probably say no, we need more resources to be more efficient. In your opinion, could they improve within the present budget or would they have to increase the budget and their resources?
Mr. Ruthnum: In our opinion, there are obviously pressures when the budgets are decreasing. We've seen that. We think that with better management practices and better efficiency within the parks operations they will be able to manage this, but we recognize that the decreasing budgets are putting increasing pressures on parks operations. We have recognized this, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Janko Peric: Finally, further down you say: ``Given the rate of progress in creating new national parks to date, the national parks system may not be completed as planned by the year 2000''. Why? What's the problem?
Mr. Ruthnum: We've looked at the progress they've made since 1990, and only four national parks have been established. The rate of progress has been too slow. This is why we express the opinion that with this rate of progress the parks system may not be completed by the year 2000. That is, all the 39 natural regions will not be represented.
Mr. Janko Peric: Do you have any idea why it's so slow?
Mr. Ruthnum: From our knowledge of the parks operations we know it is sometimes a slow process because there are lots of negotiations involved with the provinces, with aboriginal peoples, and with local communities. That may be one of the reasons, but we feel and we have indicated in the chapter that with all the parties working together this is achievable.
Mr. Janko Peric: Thank you.
The Chairman: Mr. O'Brien.
Mr. Pat O'Brien: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Welcome, gentlemen. I always enjoy hearing the Auditor General from my time on public accounts. I appreciate his comments. I'm finding the discussion today very interesting, and I have a question which I suppose goes right to the role of the Auditor General and how it relates to government.
I hear concerns about the canal system and the cost recovery and so on. I think we appreciate that being flagged and certainly we appreciate the need to develop a strategic action plan. However, if government decides that, all things considered, it will develop such an action plan and if it builds into that plan that it's going to ask the taxpayers to subsidize the system to some extent, isn't that a policy decision for government? Would you have a problem with that as a policy decision? How do you see your role in terms of commenting on proper financial fiscal operation by government as compared to a conscious decision to subsidize certain activities?
Mr. Desautels: I appreciate the opportunity to clarify that point because it comes up from time to time.
We always try to stay out of policy. We recognize it's the government's and Parliament's prerogative to set policy, and when we report back it's against the policy that was approved by Parliament. However, it's a difficult judgment call quite often on our part and we hope we make the right judgment calls. In this case I would not disagree at all with Mr. O'Brien. If the government chooses, with the normal parliamentary support, to have the general tax base support certain activities, that's a decision I would totally respect.
We were trying to do two things here. First, there has been a policy declared by government through the Treasury Board of trying to recover from users in certain situations part of the cost of providing a service by government. So there is in fact a policy statement made by government - Treasury Board in this case - and even endorsed by Parks Canada to that effect. We're auditing against that particular policy.
The second thing I want to say is that we also see it as our role to make sure there's been sufficient information supplied to Parliament and to parliamentarians in order to help them in making the right policy decision, but also to help them in assessing the results of these policy decisions after the fact. So there is a need still, while respecting the policy prerogatives of Parliament, to provide basic information on the policy and on the results of the policy. I think that's what we were trying to do here.
Mr. Pat O'Brien: I appreciate that. I thank you for the amplification to your earlier comments.
I might just ask one more question. Perhaps it's not for the Auditor General, but if he's comfortable I'd be interested in his thoughts.
In terms of the policy of Treasury Board you spoke about, am I correct that it's to recover from users at least part of the cost? I don't think it says total cost, and that leads me to my last question. Given the fiscal realities, do you see governments moving more towards a total recovery of costs from users? Do you support such a policy in general, or do you think it's beyond your scope?
Mr. Desautels: Mr. Chairman, I would be pleased to offer some comments, because we have in fact been invited to comment on that in front of a couple of other committees, namely the agriculture committee and the fisheries and oceans committee, where cost recovery is a major issue in those departments. We've been asked to provide some thoughts on that whole question.
We recognize that the decision to recover is a policy decision, but if that is the wish of Parliament to do so, right now there is quite a push to do that all across the government for different services. I've named a couple, but there is the cost of drug testing, the ice services on the various rivers and so on. There is a definite push to do that. We're suggesting that when that happens the government should clarify its policy on how much of the service they're providing is for the general good of the population and how much is for a very restricted class of taxpayers. This division between what is for the general good and what is for a restricted class of people is important in deciding how much of the cost of the service you can recover.
The other thing we've been saying, and it's been popping up in different places, is that when goverments get into cost recovery, they have to have proper cost accounting systems in place to be able to know themselves what their costs are in order to recover the proper amount, or to base the recovery on the right amount.
We find that generally the cost information is rather limited - this is the case with the canal system - and therefore it makes that kind of decision by the program administrators difficult to make.
Cost recovery is a valid concept. It's up to the government and Parliament to decide how much they want to do. In doing so, they have to make a judgment call on when a service is for the general good and when it is for a more restricted class of user.
Mr. Pat O'Brien: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
The Chairman: Mr. Serré.
Mr. Benoît Serré (Timiskaming - French River, Lib.): Gentlemen, welcome to the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. My questions will be only on chapter 31. I am on the same wavelength as my colleagues, Mr. de Savoye and Mr. O'Brien, except that I am just looking at parks.
To my mind, Parks Canada is facing a very serious dilemma. On one hand, we are moving towards a policy of cost recovery. This means that revenues must go up.
But how are we going to increase revenues? By increasing the number of visitors. On canals, that could probably be achieved without harming the environment, without damaging ecological integrity. That does not necessarily apply to parks, however. There are already problems at Banff and Jasper national parks.
If we increase visitors and use of these parks to a level where costs can be recovered, we will no longer be able to protect their ecological integrity. And this is directly in contradiction of the purpose the parks were created for. Let me give you a brief example. In the Temagami region, in my riding, there is extensive debate going on about parks. I think you are all familiar with that debate.
A proposal was made to establish a huge park and restrict all activities and all development. Only canoeists would have had access to the park. An environmental group said that would be good for the economy anyway, because the park would receive - this is just a random number - say 100,000 visitors a year. One of my friends did some quick calculations and said: "Fine, you can do that - then you're going to have so many tons of all kinds of garbage left behind in the forest. There will be so many people coming to the park that it will look like a toilet."
I wanted to give you an example. How can we reconcile these two policies? To my mind, they are almost a irreconcilable.
Mr. Ruthnum: The National Parks Act states that national parks are created for the use and enjoyment of Canadians, and also that they must remain unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. This means we have to achieve a balance between use and the preservation of ecological integrity.
The Act itself provides for sustainable use of national parks. We have therefore recommended that Parks Canada establish a maximum number of visitors for each park. Parks Canada would be responsible for determining optimal use by establishing ecological indicators for each park.
Mr. Benoît Serré: But that does not solve the problem. How can a park become profitable or self-sufficient if the number of visitors and therefore revenue is limited? That is the problem. How can these two aspects be reconciled? I understand Parks Canada's objectives and mandate, but how can these be achieved if Parks Canada is not given the appropriations and is required to generate its own revenue?
In other words, we are looking at ecological values versus economic values. Which should prevail? Is a compromise possible?
Mr. Ruthnum: I don't think that either the National Parks Act or Part III of the Main Estimates stipulate that Parks Canada should become self-sufficient. We were just talking about private benefit, the benefit that an individual user derives in using parks or historic canals.
We did not recommend that Parks Canada become self-sufficient by seeking to generate higher revenue. That is not the purpose of this chapter of our report.
Mr. Desautels: We could perhaps invite Mr. Daniel Brunton to the table. Mr. Brunton, who is here today, is an ecologist who assisted us in drafting this part of the report. He might be able to add some comment in answer to Mr. Serré's question.
The Chairman: Go ahead.
Mr. Daniel Brunton (Consultant to the Audit Team, Office of the Auditor General of Canada): In terms of the balance, Parks Canada is not required to recover the total amount of its operating costs in any event. In terms of setting what the carrying capacity of the site might be, whether it's a valley system in the Rocky Mountains or a canoe trail in the shield country, they tend to look towards the identification of ecological indicators. It may be the population of a particular animal or bird or the structure of a forest or what have you that tells them whether the level of use that's going on in that place is actually degrading the quality of that site. If not, is there more that could be accommodated by that site, specifically so that you don't have canoe trails turning into toilets?
There are lots of examples in the literature from park systems throughout North America and indeed throughout the world where these kinds of investigations have been done in a variety of landscapes. Some of these can be directly imported to the Parks Canada experience, others have to be adapted. Parks Canada has been involved in this for quite a few years, and we certainly saw examples where they were quite successful in that.
Mr. Benoît Serré: Let me take off my environmentalist's hat and put on my developer's or businessman's hat.
I have always had a problem with creating parks. We do not take economic values - that is, natural resources - into consideration.
Let me give you an example. Let's say a park is established before any prospecting is done to determine whether there are deposits there. As soon as the park is created, prospecting is out. So no more economic benefits, and no more development.
We will never know whether there's a Voisey's Bay in one of these little parks. I believe - and Mr. Brunton might be able to answer this - that for the greater good of Canadians a detailed study of economic values, including mining potential, should be carried out on candidate sites to ensure that Canadians are not deprived of extraordinary wealth through the establishment of a national park.
I fully agree with the concept of national parks. I agree that the environment must be protected and that certain areas must be protected. But there comes a point where the economic assets of a given region - assets that would benefit all Canadians - may be far greater than the ecological assets the park would protect. I think we must have some mechanism to ensure that we know exactly what a candidate site contains and represents before a park is established.
Mr. Desautels: I will ask Mr. Brunton to elaborate on this. The question Mr. Serré raises is one of choices: there comes a point when we must make choices, and that is when we must have all the information we need to make them intelligently.
We must find a balance between the given site's economic value and its natural, or ecological, value. We all know that, in Canada, there are situations where these two aspects are in opposition. It is up to governments to decide, and to make those choices that best reflect society's expectations.
However, and we agree on this, the Canadian government must, through Parks Canada, have sufficient knowledge of any site it wants to turn into a national park to ensure that it makes the right decision.
Mr. Brunton could perhaps elaborate.
Mr. Brunton: You're right about whether or not those studies have been done in the past. A lot of those kinds of considerations are typically handled more by the provinces than by the federal level. Certainly Parks Canada doesn't have any mandate under the existing act to go into those sorts of investigations. They're clearly restrained to looking at the question of the ecological representation of the unit and what it contributes to the national well-being.
There are the same kinds of constraints, especially on whether the existing parks may have economic benefits through mining, oil, or whatever that would apply to these kinds of recreational concerns that were raised by other members. You certainly could find a lot of ways of generating additional economic wealth in a park site, but on balance Parliament has decided with the National Parks Act that in these areas the ecological and compatible recreational benefit is of the greatest value to the people of Canada. Their knowledge of how to interpret that act and apply it through their principles and policies and so forth and how to develop the information they need to make those decisions seem to be pretty well worked out now. They haven't gone to the point of determining whether or not there are mineral potentials in their land bases.
Mr. Benoît Serré: Do you think it would be a good idea to have that information before setting up new parks?
Mr. Desautels: In paragraph 31.63 of chapter 31, we indicate that it is the policy of the federal government to ensure that an inventory of the non-renewable natural resource potential of areas in the territories be compiled prior to their formal establishment as a new national park.
Therefore, the economic potential of a given site is analyzed before a final decision is made.
The Chairman: I think the question raised by Mr. Serré is really an important one. We should also focus on our international obligations, where the United Nations in various fora have set up some sort of a guideline after extensive study as to what load a country can bear, separating development from protection of habitat, and it has determined that each country should make an effort to protect 12% of its land and devote 88% to development. So that is an international commitment we've made.
We were the first industrial country to sign the Biodiversity Convention. Taking that into account, we're quite a way from reaching the target. Few countries have reached it. But I think where I agree with Mr. Serré would be that in trying to reach a target in establishing our parks, the number of parks we need to reach that target in various regions, obviously we should take into account that if an area is more adaptable to certain types of development, it should be taken into account as to where you locate that park, which we do.
I think we have to take into account too our overall ecosystem, the whole, total country. I think this is one of the factors that is taken into account when deciding how much to protect and where. In our friend Patrick Gagnon's area in Forillon Park, next door there's a lot of development taking place, but it seems to me that the establishment of the park there was almost essential in preserving a very fragile ecosystem in an area where there's development just next door.
It's the same with Banff and Jasper, where close to the park there's development taking place. Unless that was protected.... They say, for instance the population of grizzlies in Bow Valley now is going down. They don't know exactly, it's very hard to determine, but because the ecosystem has been cut up and they don't have travel paths, natural travel paths are down to perhaps 60. We're finding that the grizzlies are disappearing in all of the south because of encroaching developments.
So I think all these factors have to be taken into account, and it seems to me as a country we had better be conscious of meeting our international obligations to protect 12% of our land. I can understand what you're driving at, for sure.
Mr. de Savoye.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: Mr. Desautels, in the brief you presented today, as in your report, you stated that Parks Canada has considered no option to site ownership. That is an interesting point. You are of course very diplomatic, and I would like to ask whether in fact you are telling the committee that Parks Canada's insistence on site ownership could somehow impair the fulfilment of its mandate.
Is that what you are saying, Mr. Desautels?
Mr. Desautels: I think our report is sufficiently clear. By insisting on site ownership, Parks Canada makes it more difficult for itself to complete the national parks system as planned. But this is an important decision and a very delicate issue. I think they will have to come some decision, perhaps with some help from parliamentarians, I hope.
You put the question very clearly. But it is a matter to be decided by political authorities.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: Why does Parks Canada insists on site ownership? Is that policy cast in stone, or is it an internal Parks Canada decision? Where do that come from?
Mr. Ruthnum: It's in the Act.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: It's in the Act.
Mr. Ruthnum: Yes, it's in the Act. Subsection 3(2)(a) stipulates that, in order to establish a national park, Parks Canada
should have ``clear title to the lands described in the proclamation''.
That is provided for in the Act.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: Please forgive me, I am not a lawyer. When you say clear title, that's property title...
Mr. Ruthnum: Full ownership.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: ... of the ground and everything under it.
Mr. Ruthnum: That's right.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: What you are saying then, Mr. Desautels, is that perhaps the act should be amended. I assume that question should be put to Parks Canada. Do you have a sense of how Parks Canada would respond to possible changes to the act?
The Chairman: There is already one exception: Saguenay Marine Park. It was established as a result of negotiations with the Quebec government. A special bill, which is currently going through Parliament, establishes the marine park under an agreement between the government of Quebec and the government of Canada. The park could not have been established otherwise, since under the Act water comes under federal jurisdiction and the shoreline comes under provincial jurisdiction.
The two governments therefore came to an agreement. This agreement could serve as a precedent for others in the future. Without presuming on decision this government or future governments will make, to my mind this agreement could serve as a precedent for others between the federal and provincial governments. For example, if the parties cannot agree to transfer full ownership of a given site to the federal government, a special bill could be drafted as it was for the Saguenay Marine Park, which I feel is an interesting model. I would like to hear what Mr. Desautels and Mr. Ruthnum think of it.
There is a number of examples where the federal and provincial governments have entered into agreements for joint management of a given area. If I am not mistaken, there is one in Saskatchewan, and lately another agreement was signed between the federal government and the Government of British Columbia for the Gulf Islands National Park. The park has not yet been established, but they are moving that way. This is the reasoning put forward in our report.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: With respect to my question more specifically, do you know if Parks Canada would prefer an amendment to the Act or particular acts for each individual case?
Mr. Ruthnum: Parks Canada would be in a better position to answer that question. As for our recommendations on the ownership of the areas, Parks Canada told us that it would continue in the direction indicated by the government, namely that the Act requires Parks Canada to own the land. Parks Canada must own the land before a national park can be created.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: I will go back to my first question, because all the others revolve around it. Does wanting to own the land run counter to Parks Canada's initial and fundamental mandate?
Mr. Ruthnum: I could not comment on that. The Act is clear on ownership of the areas, but to complete some national parks, they went in another direction: some areas are jointly managed with the provinces according to national parks standards.
Mr. Pierre de Savoye: If I've understood your comments in sections 31.65, 31.66 and 31.67, you are saying that if Parks Canada persists in wanting full ownership of the land, it will be impossible to complete the system, that is why I say that there is a contradiction between applying the letter of the law and carrying out its mandate. Since you are reporting on it, do you feel that a solution must be found to resolve this contradiction?
Mr. Desautels: I think that Parks Canada should explore new ways of completing its system. Up until now, they have given us the impression that they are very reluctant to complete it in any other way except with full ownership of each park.
However, as the Chairman said, there are starting to be some exceptions to that rule. I think that we should encourage Parks Canada to be more open to this approach.
The Chairman: Mr. Gagnon.
Mr. Patrick Gagnon (Bonaventure - Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Lib.): Thank you, Mr. Desautels. I am not a permanent member of this committee. However, my question is inspired to some extent by my short, rather controversial, stint on the Standing Joint Committee on Official Languages.
In your monitoring of Parks Canada, we have noted your desire, or rather, Parks Canada's desire to reduce its costs in light of budget cuts, etc. We have also noted that there has been a devolution of some services previously offered by Parks Canada, mainly in connection with food outlets and the arrival of some outfitters in the parks. As a frequent user of national parks, I have noticed that often the people who have received these concessions from Parks Canada do not offer adequate or proper service in both official languages.
For example, in some cases brochures and even customer services are not offered in English or in French, of course, and I would like to know if it is up to you to denounce or single out Parks Canada shortcomings.
There is concern for cost recovery, but do we have any guarantees that Parks Canada intends to force these operators, food outlets or outfitters to offer at the very least adequate service that respects Parks Canada's commitment to offer services in both official languages?
Mr. Desautels: We have not examined that aspect of Parks Canada's services for a good reason. It is a matter of jurisdiction. There is a Commissioner of Official languages, and in each of the programs we have examined, we leave the door open for him to look at the application of official languages.
I understand Mr. Gagnon's concern. Budget cuts and the use of sub-contractors should not have a negative impact on compliance with the Official Languages Act.
But, in all honesty, we have not examined that, because we leave that responsibility to the Commissioner of Official Languages.
Mr. Patrick Gagnon: Often the opinion of the Commissioner for Official Languages is sought after the establishment of a concession. Often, the sub-contractor has been there not only for a few weeks or a few months but for several years. In those cases, the Commissioner for Official Languages is hard pressed to force Parks Canada to comply with the act.
Would it be possible for Parks Canada to be prompted into conducting a proper inquiry before a concession is granted so that clients need not lodge complaints, therefore avoiding a lot of complications?
Mr. Desautels: In granting contracts or concessions, Parks Canada must be absolutely clear in terms of its requirements. They should be part of the terms and conditions that the concession owner must accept.
Then, once the concession is granted, it is naturally Parks Canada's responsibility to enforce all clauses pertaining to the contract.
That brings up a wider issue. Parks Canada is not alone within the federal government to wish to use alternative sources of services. We have to maintain the ability for managers to guarantee that federal policies are complied with by various contractors.
The Chairman: I think that in meeting today, the Standing Committee on Heritage wanted to assess how it could contribute to the implementation of the main recommendations of your report concerning the protection of the ecological integrity of our parks as well as the whole issue of cost recovery, particularly in the case of recreational canals.
You suggested that we ask Parks Canada to give us an official update on the implementation of your recommendations previous to the follow-up you intend to conduct in two years from now. Is this a proper assessment of your message?
Mr. Desautels: Yes, Mr. Chairman. To the extent you agree with our overall recommendations, your committee could be tremendously useful if it requested Parks Canada to prepare at some point a progress report on the implementation of our recommendations.
The Chairman: We do not have a full quorum and therefore I suggest that at the recommendation of the committee, Parks Canada prepare a report on what has been accomplished to this day with respect to the Auditor General's recommendations. If the members agree, I would write Parks Canada in order to make that request.
I wish to thank the Auditor General for appearing before us today. This is a matter which greatly affects Canadians. However, our inquiries lead us to believe that the issue is not of great concern to them. I thank you for clarifying your report. I can assure you that we were deeply interested by what you have told us and that we will make sure to diligently follow up the matter with Parks Canada. Thank you very much for coming.
Mr. Desautels: Thank you.
The Chairman: Just before adjourning,
there are some items of business we have to complete. We don't have the Reform Party here and we don't have enough of a quorum to do it. So I will write to the members as soon as possible, especially regarding travel plans for a study, and follow up after through a teleconference to find out if you agree or disagree.
Thank you very much. The meeting is adjourned.