Riding Mountain park closure impacts businesses

May 18, 2020, 1:58 am
Rob Paul Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Riding Mountain National Park

While businesses ranging from restaurants to the golf course in Riding Mountain National Park are allowed to open under Manitoba Covid-19 regulations, the national park has said it is closed until May 31, and the closure includes roadways that are needed to access the businesses.

On May 1, Parks Canada put out a press release regarding Riding Mountain National Park and its services remaining suspended amid the Covid-19 pandemic despite the Government of Manitoba allowing for the reopening of parks on May 4 as part of the first phase of its plan.

Riding Mountain National Park in Wasagaming, Manitoba is home to more than just campgrounds, with many seasonal businesses from restaurants to retail services to motels and cabins within the national park.

With Parks Canada’s decision to have all visitor services, facilities, vehicle access, camping, group activities, and events to remain suspended until at least May 31, it has led to some confusion regarding businesses.

Parks Canada says its aware of Manitoba’s reopening plan, but will keep the closures at Riding Mountain National Park intact until further notice and will only allow for through traffic on Highways 10 and 19 and stated even parking on the side of the highway is prohibited.

In a letter to Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson on April 30, MP for Dauphin-Swan River- Neepawa Dan Mazier asked for the Ministry and Parks Canada to re-evaluate the situation.

The letter from Mazier said that in the context of Covid-19, he feels each park in the National System should assess and align their operations in conjunction with the public health orders issued in each provincial or territorial jurisdiction and that the decision to ease restrictions may be better delegated by each individual superintendent who is aware and knowledgeable of current challenges and opportunities of reopening.

Mazier said Minister Wilkinson has acknowledge receiving the letter, but has yet to make any sort of response around the confusing situation.

“They’re telling them they’re open, but they’ve got road blocks set up in the middle of the streets and trails taped off with caution tape,” said Mazier. “They’re sending two signals.”

“They did this right from the get-go from March 15 on. When they shut down Canada, they shut down the parks as well. At that time we were questioning the process of why they were doing that, especially to block off vehicle traffic. In all that time they said, ‘you can go in as a construction worker — we can’t stop you — but just don’t invite any friends.’ That’s where they were for that month and things are evolving with Covid-19, we’re all learning.”

“We were really hopeful that they (Parks Canada) would start following Manitoba’s or the regional process as far as getting back to recovery,” said Mazier. “All these provinces and regions are starting to get into that recovery mode and allowing businesses to reopen.”

“It’s very, very unfortunate that they’ve chosen just to lock and load and hold down until May 31. I don’t know what kind of safety protocols they’re following by simply putting road blocks in the middle of a town. It’s really disheartening and it does prove how out of touch the people demanding it stay shut are to the reality of what’s going on.”

The decision from Parks Canada during the pandemic has already impacted businesses within the park more than Covid-19 has the vast majority of businesses in Canada because of the complete closure.

“There was a business in Wasagaming who wanted to stay open and do curbside pickup, but they won’t even allow vehicles into Wasagaming to come and do a pick up,” said Mazier. “That’s how ridiculous this is.”

“I can go to any other town in Manitoba and go and pick up stuff from a restaurant and yet you couldn’t do it at a National Park. I don’t know why and it’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating and detrimental to those local business owners and their economy.”

“We have people all around Riding Mountain National Park,” said Mazier. “It’s one of the only parks in Canada that’s totally surrounded by people and it’s part of our community. When the federal government comes in and isolates it like this with no regard to what the locals have to say, it’s just a slap in the face to everybody. I’m not too impressed.”

With the way businesses across Canada are reopening, Mazier doesn’t understand why Parks Canada is calling their own shots.

“Safety of the employees? Every other business is doing this,” said Mazier. “It’s almost like they don’t care. If you were an employee, I’d think you’d want to get back to work outdoors. It’s not like you work in a confined space in these parks either. The first places you should be able to go is where you’re outside, able to walk on a trail, and enjoy nature. This is supposed to be a government that wants people out camping and in the outdoors, but meanwhile they just shut it down. It makes absolutely no sense at all.”

With businesses across Canada beginning to reopen, Mazier says it’s putting businesses in Riding Mountain National Park even further behind.

“We’ve heard from lots of businesses in the area,” said Mazier. “It’s almost like you have to prepare for a return. Even though we’re able to open in Manitoba, there are still businesses choosing to stay closed. We’re all going to have to figure out these protocols.”

“It’s interesting. I went for a haircut yesterday in Brandon and in the morning they were still getting their protocols figured out and were working with authorities on how to do it right. Clear Lake doesn’t have any of those opportunities right now to learn with everybody else to ease it in when the demand isn’t there.”

“There is going to be a point where there will be people lined up at the gate again and you’re going to expect them to park on the street? I don’t know what they’re going to expect them to be doing,” said Mazier.

“They won’t have a chance to grow into the new normal. That’s probably the most frustrating thing. They want to get back to business, they want to test it out, they want to do the right thing, everybody wants to do the right thing and the federal government is not allowing them to do that. That’s just not right.”

The added confusion around who and what’s allowed inside the park grounds has led to more questions, but no answers.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Mazier. “They don’t want you there, but they can’t stop you. People are kind of scared because if they bring their car and park it on the street to go to a business then whose law are they breaking? Is it federal? Provincial? Does the RCMP give you a ticket? How much is the ticket? What are we stopping here and whose health act are we actually following? Just put the streets back open and put the protocols in place like the rest of the province and get on with life.”

Mazier says there’s a clear communication issue with Parks Canada and this problem is deeper than just the Riding Mountain National Park situation.

“The issue of taking into consideration the wants and needs of the region with what the mandate of the park is has been at many times at loggerheads,” said Mazier. “It’s very hard to communicate with National Parks in general.”

“That is a huge gaping hole and as I find out more, it’s a chronic problem that Parks Canada does not communicate very well with the locals. Instead of looking at what each parks does, what its benefits are, and how it could enhance the region, it’s more of a state controlled entity that’s out of touch. It’s too bad and we have a long way to go to get those communications back. We’ll start with this one and see how far we get with it.”

“There’s two different departments at play here,” said Mazier. “There’s the operations of parks and parks itself, there’s also tourism at play here too. There’s the whole tourism industry and how they’re getting just slammed and how parks is standing in the way. That whole dynamic is the two things that fight back and forth when it comes to policy with development in the park vs. tourism policy. We’ll tackle the park side first to get the management under control so that the businesses can get open and then we’ll see what we can do for the tourism side.”

Parks Canada said they didn’t have anybody available for an interview, but stated in an email to the World-Spectator that Parks Canada has suspended camping, group activities and events at all national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas across the country until at least May 31, 2020. Visitor services and vehicle access by visitors are suspended, and facilities remain closed until further notice.

“While there may be a barricades in place at Riding Mountain National Park, cabin and cottage owners can still access their property,” Parks Canada said in their statement.

“Water and sewer service continue to be available. Parks Canada is encouraging residents to follow the advice of public health experts and stay home when possible, respect social distancing practices, and avoid public gatherings.” 

“Additionally, commercial businesses operating in Wasgaming have the right to access their leasehold premises. Individual businesses are making their own decisions regarding opening.”

“If a business does open, they are required to take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as directed by local public health authorities, as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada.”

“Parks Canada is working diligently to plan for resuming visitation at some locations. Visitor access and services will align with the recommendations of public health authorities; will be designed to promote the health and safety of visitors, employees, and Canadians; and will also include measures to manage garbage collection, washroom facilities, and mitigate any negative impacts on natural and cultural resources as well as built assets.”