Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

History sent packing by cuts

Artifacts not currently on display to be shipped out of the province

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OTTAWA -- A large part of Manitoba's history is about to be boxed up and shipped off, likely to a warehouse in Quebec, as part of the Harper government's recent budget cuts.

Larry Ostola, vice-president of heritage conservation and commemoration at Parks Canada, confirmed Monday the agency will bring hundreds of thousands of artifacts -- furniture, clothing and even pieces of permafrost -- from across the country to a centralized location, likely near the Parks Canada headquarters in Gatineau, Que.

The consolidation is part of cost-cutting that's slashing $29 million from the Parks Canada budget over the next three years.

But archaeologists in Winnipeg aren't so sure this isn't a step toward killing off Canada's history, piece by piece.

"They are literally closing down the vast majority of records and our heritage and our history," said Leigh Syms, former curator of archeology at the Manitoba Museum and a professor at the University of Manitoba.

Parks Canada has an enormous collection of artifacts in numerous locations. Each item has been studied and preserved by teams of archeologists, museum curators and other experts.

In Manitoba, the artifacts are used to tell the stories of the province's history at Canada's national parks and historic sites, such as Lower Fort Garry near Selkirk and the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site of Canada near Churchill. The items include such things as the clothing of early settlers and First Nations people. There is even organic matter from northern permafrost in Manitoba.

All the artifacts not currently on display in Manitoba will be shipped to Gatineau. Experts say taking them to a central depository removes them from the rotation museums use to change up their exhibits.

And it could take days or even weeks to recall specific objects from Gatineau if a Manitoba-based institute needs it for an exhibit or for research purposes.

Greg Thomas, a former archeologist for Parks Canada in Winnipeg, said moving everything to the Ottawa area is a blow to many tourism attractions.

Thomas said the regional offices provide a level of knowledge and expertise that a consolidated national location cannot match. It just doesn't make sense for someone in Manitoba to have to turn to someone in Ottawa when they want to learn about Manitoba history, he said.

The amount of work that can be done to collect, preserve and use artifacts also won't be matched, with an estimated 65 per cent of the professional staff at Parks Canada being laid off.

"We're talking the researchers, the historians, the archeologists," Thomas said. "These are the ones who can take these collections and work with the (national historic) sites to bring them to life."

Parks Canada is keeping a team of 10 national archeologists who will be called on when needed to go anywhere in the country, Ostola said.

The move will take place over the next three years, but there shouldn't be any worry that warehousing the items in Gatineau will be any different than warehousing them in separate locations across the country, he said.

"We will continue to have the expertise needed in all the relevant areas," he said.

Any time someone wants to access an item, they will be able to, he said.

Syms isn't buying it, noting it is hard to believe a smaller number of people can properly preserve and offer the same kind of access to thousands of items.

"They won't be accessible for historians for exhibits or for researchers," he said.

Thomas said the numbers aren't there to ensure the same level of service. There used to be more than 10 archeologists and historical professionals working in the western region alone. Now there will be 10 for the country, two based in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2012 A3

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