Trent-Severn Waterway employees face layoffs

By Sara Carson, Orillia Packet & Times

The union representing Trent-Severn Waterway employees expects 30% of its workforce to be laid off this season, says Dave Hewitt, local president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE).

“The anxiety of not knowing what’s happening has been very stressful,” Hewitt said on Wednesday. “They don’t know if they have jobs next year. They don’t know if they have jobs after Labour Day in some cases.”

This week, Parks Canada announced it was laying off 12 employees from the Trent-Severn Waterway’s head office in Peterborough.

This is atop the 35 positions that have already been cut.

In April, Parks Canada offered voluntary layoffs to all staff on the canal.

About four in the Orillia area took the offer.

“That was their choice,” Hewitt said.

This includes staff in locks 42 (Washago), 43 (Swift Rapids) and 44 (Big Chute).

“Once those people are gone, those positions will be eliminated,” Hewitt said.

Three were lock operators and one was a maintenance worker out of Washago, he said.

Parks Canada has told the union, lockmasters, lock operators and maintenance people they will learn their fate later in the summer.

But, no position is safe.

“Nothing is safe,” Hewitt said. “I’m fearing for my own job.”

Later this summer, once Parks Canada has completed the analysis of canal operations, water management and maintenance requirements and next year’s navigation schedule is finalized, canal operations and maintenance staff will be advised of the final decision and any potential impacts on their employment status, Natalie Fay, a spokesperson for Parks Canada said in an email response.

Fay said there has been a “slow, steady decline” in boating use of the canals for the last two decades.

“The cost of subsidizing recreational boating on canals has remained very high, especially for non-peak periods when usage is low,” she said.

“As part of the Government of Canada efforts to reduce the budget deficit,” she added, “Parks Canada is focusing recreational boating services at its canals on periods of high use.”

Parks Canada will be working with local stakeholders and partners to minimize, where possible, the impacts of program change on communities, Fay said.

Because of the potential shortened season, Hewitt expects 30% of the waterway’s workforce to be cut.

“They are telling us they want to meet their budget commitments,” he said, adding the waterway lost $29 million last year.

This is “false and inaccurate information,” that 30% of the workforce will be laid off, Fay said.

“There is absolutely no basis for that number,” she said. “No final decision has been made and consultations are occurring as we speak.”

Communities across Trent Severn will see the greatest loss if the season is reduced, Hewitt said.

“It’s going to be devastating to the communities along the waterway who count on vessel traffic visitors from around the world who come to see us,” he said. “It’s going to be crippling.”

Hewitt said the Trent-Severn Waterway generates in excess of $300 million in economic spinoff from one end to the other. The waterway starts in Trenton on Lake Ontario and runs to Port Severn on Georgian Bay.

“That’s $1 million dollars a day taken out of the economy every time they close,” Hewitt said.

If the locks are closed two or three days a week next summer, they may as well close for good, he said.

Boaters travelling through the locks will end up stuck for days, Hewitt said.

The union is also upset with the way the budget is being balanced.

Canals are taking 10% to 20% of the cuts across Parks Canada while other services are seeing 5% to 10% cuts, he said.

“We find that very, very unfair and offensive,” Hewitt said. “They seem to be targeting us unfairly.”

Fay objected that canals are being targeted.

“The hardest hit part of Parks Canada has been by far its headquarters and regional service centres,” Fay said, while not providing figures. “As for Parks Canada operations, all parks and sites across Canada were affected,” she added.

Hewitt is also questioning why Parks Canada spent $500,000 on additional office space in Peterborough when staff are being cut.

“That’s sitting empty,” Hewitt said.

Fay said the project had been planned for years and was focused around repairing the visitor centre at the Peterborough Lift Lock.

“A small part of the project included refurbishing the basement with additional office space,” she said. “The work was just completed this year and Parks Canada will now look at alternative uses for the space, including rental opportunities.”

Trent-Severn Waterway employees are looking for answers.

“We just want some clarity on the issue,” Hewitt said. “There doesn’t seem to be anything concrete going on.”

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