OTTAWA — With park operating seasons curtailed and bands of volunteers clearing trails on their own in the winter, the Conservative government has faced questions about its commitment to the national parks system.
In 2012, the government declared it would cut the agency’s $631-million budget by $29.2 million over three years. Parks Canada responded by saying it would “align its season, hours of operation, and services to better reflect patterns of visitation.” Most parks went to a three-season model.
Last week, however, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq told the Commons that the “overall budget has increased by 26 per cent.” She said that was in addition to $391 million in funds for park roads announced in the 2014 budget.
Is Aglukkaq correct — the agency’s budget has gone up, despite the cuts?
Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of “some baloney.” Here’s why.
There are different ways of looking at a department’s budget.
The first is to consider how much money was available for Parks Canada to spend in a given fiscal year. Put another way, how much did Parliament approve for the agency to spend?
In the main budgetary estimates released this week, the government said it intends to spend $737 million on Parks Canada this year, the increase mainly due to money earmarked for fixing highways and bridges.
How much the agency will actually spend won’t be known until next year. Every year, going back a decade, that amount has turned out to be less than the amount available.
The budget the agency was approved to spend in 2014-15 was $800 million. Compared to the amount promised this year, that would indicate a decrease this year of approximately 7.8 per cent.
If however, we compared the amount the agency actually spent last year ($671,387,496) with what the government is proposing, there would be an increase of 9.8 per cent. This comparison is problematic — it does not allow for inflation, and again lacks the critical element of what the agency will actually spend.
What about the government’s overall budgetary record and Parks Canada?
The year before the government took power — 2005-06 — Parks Canada spent $535 million of its approved budget. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, Parks Canada reports spending of $671 million. In straight dollars, that’s a 25.4 per cent increase — essentially what Aglukkaq claimed.
Taking inflation into account with the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, the increase looks more like 8.4 per cent between 2005 and 2014.
There are some other factors to consider when talking about Parks Canada’s budget, particularly whether the department’s responsibilities are expanding.
While the budget has effectively gone up by 8.4 per cent over a decade, it has also taken on major new projects. The development of Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park, for instance, will require approximately $14 million every year until 2022.
The government hived off $6.3 million from the Parks Canada budget in 2014-15 to the Trans Canada Trail Foundation, an outside charitable organization.
Parks Canada has also said that of its $15 billion in buildings, almost half are in “poor to very poor condition.” It must move money around as it balances the need for safeguarding those assets with delivering other programs.
All of this helps to explain why winter services in many parks have not been reinstated, even as the budget technically increases.
Eric Hebert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the group has seen a gradual reduction in how much the agency spends on environmental monitoring as it juggles its budget.
“It was a world-leading system up until recently, and it’s been really scaled back significantly,” Hebert-Daly said.
“The preventative care for parks is going to be significantly reduced if your monitoring capabilities are not as strong.”
It is difficult to come to the conclusion that the budget has increased over last year without knowing how much the agency will actually wind up spending.
But Aglukkaq is correct that the budget has gone up, when compared to its level in 2005-06, even when taking into consideration inflation.
Still, a major new park project, and infrastructure in dire straits inside the system, means that an increased budget and cuts are not mutually exclusive inside Parks Canada — hence Aglukkaq’s use of the word “overall” budget.
For these reasons, her claim that the Parks Canada budget has increased by 26 per cent contains “some baloney.”
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate