Louis Riel is considered a Father of Confederation, founder of Manitoba and a significant figure in Canadian history. But his family home in Winnipeg is facing a more modern-day challenge – budget cuts.
The 131-year-old house has been owned by Parks Canada for nearly 50 years and is managed as a National Historic Site. For 30 years, the St. Boniface Historical Society provided guides in period costumes who gave tours of the house between May and September and explained the history of Riel.
Last month, the federal agency told the society that the contract, costing about $50,000 annually, was being terminated for budget cuts.
"It's certainly not the best situation," said Tom Kynman, superintendent of operations for Parks Canada's Southern Manitoba region. "As part of our response to the [federal] budget of 2012, one of the decisions taken was not to renew an interpretive contract."
Mr. Kynman said Parks Canada will continue to maintain the property. Instead of guided tours, visitors will pick up a pamphlet at the house and make their own way around. Mr. Kynman said it is not clear if the house will be staffed at all, even by volunteers. "We're not quite sure how it is going to work," he said.
The Riel house is one of more than two dozen historic sites across the country that will no longer have guided tours because of budget cuts. The government is trimming $29-million from the Parks Canada budget over the next three years.
The decision could put the future of the house in jeopardy, said Gilles Lesage, the society's executive director.
"The big concern that we have is in terms of what's going to happen to the site on the longer term," Mr. Lesage said. "When a site is not in use, or where you have no onsite personnel, certainly it can become open to more problems [such as] people coming in the middle of the night or making a campfire close to the house."
Mr. Lesage added that the society was surprised at the decision since Parks Canada had already contracted out guided tours at the house; at many other sites across the country, Parks Canada staff do the tours themselves. A few years ago, the federal service also introduced an admission fee at the Riel house to help cover some of the costs of managing it.
"We were somewhat surprised because the option of contracting out like this is probably a cheaper way to operate a site like that, and so we thought that we probably wouldn't be on that list," he said.
Mr. Lesage said the tour included details about Métis life in Manitoba, as well as history of Riel's struggle for Métis rights. The house "has been significant for making the history of the Métis known," he said, adding that about 4,000 people visited it last year. Riel never lived in the house, but his family did and it's where he laid in state after being hanged in Regina in 1885.
"Hopefully there will be a way found to keep that site open and keep the interpretation going," Mr. Lesage said. "At this point I really don't know what's possible."