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Sheldon Matsalla in the doorway of the 105-year-old barn at the Motherwell Homestead. (Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail/Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail)
Sheldon Matsalla in the doorway of the 105-year-old barn at the Motherwell Homestead. (Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail/Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail)

Goodbye live interpreters, hello smart-phone apps Add to ...

At Long Beach in British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a small team of surf guards will no longer watch the waves in summer months.

In Alberta’s Jasper National Park, visitor centre hours will be scaled back during slower times of the year.

And across the country, dozens of soldiers, farmhands and shopkeepers – Parks Canada staff who dress in period garb and welcome visitors to historic sites – will disappear, as part of a transition that will see about 30 national historic sites move from guided to self-guiding facilities by 2013. The cutbacks are part of plans to trim $29-million from the Parks Canada budget over the next three years.

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The ripple effects are being felt across the country, with Parks Canada employees and local tourism operators waiting to see how the cuts, part of Ottawa’s plan to eliminate 19,200 federal positions and save $5.2-billion a year, will play out. And the pain is being felt perhaps most deeply in small, rural communities, where national historic sites – and their associated jobs and income – are a key part of the local economy.

The changes kick in next season, when family outings to forts and trading posts could become a considerably quieter affair. In Abernethy, Sask., cuts to the Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site – the restored homestead of farmer and politician W.R. Motherwell – will eliminate several staff positions and a ‘living history’ component that included a team of work horses.

“Instead of coming in and seeing animals, and people tending a garden and looking after animals, where kids might have an option to milk a cow – next summer, instead of a person to do that type of interpretation, there will be plaques.” said Eddie Kennedy, national executive vice-president of the Union of National Employees.

In Newfoundland, Fishers’ Loft Inn owner John Fisher says sites like Castle Hill – a popular destination for his guests – will lose some of their allure and viability when they lose costumed guides.

“When you take away a live interpreter, and replace it with some self-guiding option, it’s not the same thing,” Mr. Fisher says.

National historic sites in Alberta, Quebec and the Maritimes will also be moving to self-guided status. Higher-traffic sites such as Saskatchewan’s Fort Walsh and the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton will retain costumed guides, as will B.C.’s Fort Langley.

“We are not closing any national historic sites across the country as a result of budget reductions,” said Bill Fisher, Parks Canada’s vice president operations for Western and Northern Canada, saying sites changing to self-guided status are ones that draw relatively low numbers among the agency’s attractions.

“We still will have employees on site who will welcome and greet people to that particular historic site. But rather than have guided tours, with a personal interpreter taking a group around a facility, we’ll provide other means of getting that story across.”

Those other means could include a brochure, audio tours or a smart-phone app.

In Whitehorse, the S.S. Klondike – a sternwheeler that’s been a backdrop for countless tourist snapshots – is to become a self-guiding facility.

It’s possible that a local entrepreneur or volunteers could step in to offer guided tours and period flavour now provided by Parks Canada staff, says Whitehorse Mayor Bev Bakeway.

“The good news is that boat will still be here – it will be accessible, it will be open,” Ms. Bakeway said.

“People who are history buffs really like to engage in exploring the history a bit more, and of course, we’re hoping that interest doesn’t go away. And the fact that there may not be guided tours available – we hope they don’t let that deter them.”

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