Parks Canada still might privatize mountain hot springs

Workers at three mountain hot springs remain in limbo four years after Parks Canada announced it wanted to privatize the tourist attractions in Alberta and B.C.

Unclear whether plan is shelved or still in the works for Banff, Radium and Jasper

The Banff Upper Hot Springs, Radium Hot Springs and Miette Hot Springs in Jasper, Alta., were all supposed to be privatized, but there have been delays. (CBC)

Workers at three mountain hot springs remain in limbo four years after Parks Canada announced it wanted to privatize the tourist attractions in Alberta and B.C.

The initial announcement caused an uproar with local communities and First Nations, and protests and heated town hall meetings soon followed. Concerns include the impact on admission prices and whether the sites could be turned into private spas.

Parks would still own the facilities but would contract out the business operations at the Banff, Radium and Miette Hot Springs in Jasper.

The 2012 decision by Parks Canada put employees at the three sites in a perilous employment situation as they have a notification of affected status, which means the operations of the hot springs could face commercialization in the future.

"We, the union, don't like that," said Kevin King with the Union of National Employees. "Employees of any organization, whether they are publicly funded or private sector, would prefer to have some certainty." 
Concerns raised over privatization of Banff springs 1:50

First Nations consider hot springs on their lands

Parks Canada did announce a delay in the process in 2013 because it needed time to consult with First Nations. There are 20 First Nations who consider the three hot springs to be on their lands. First Nations people considered the hot springs to be sacred places more than a century ago.

For instance, the Shuswap Band has a long history of using the Radium Hot Springs long before the site was ever developed.

"That was a healing site, that was a spiritual site to our nation," said Audrey Eugene, the band's culture and heritage coordinator. So far, Parks Canada has not talked to the band about privatizing the site.

"Our Shuswap Nation used that trail a lot to trade with the prairie people because the prairie people had the buffalo and stuff and we had the salmon. It's just a major trail that was used, so all we want is to be consulted with anything to do with Parks Canada," she said.    

While Parks Canada declined an interview, spokeswoman Kassandra Dazé said in a statement the "examination of the matter is on-going, including through discussions with First Nation partners." 

Union hopes Liberals will give more money to Parks

The union is hopeful a change of government in Ottawa will result in a new narrative and position on the privatization plan after the Liberals ran on a platform to "reverse Stephen Harper's cuts to Parks Canada, which cut more than $25 million from programs and services."

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna declined an interview request.

"We are aware that Parks Canada is examining the matter of the hot pools in the mountain parks and expect that officials will brief the minister in due course," her spokeswoman, Caitlin Workman, said in an email. 
There are 20 First Nations who consider the three hot springs to be on their lands. (CBC)

Some support privatization

Not everyone is opposed to commercializing the hot springs, with some optimistic that it could improve the visitor experience.

"If something can be run more efficiently than it has in the past that would be a benefit to our mountain park users," said Casey Pierce with the Association for Mountain Parks Protection & Enjoyment.

Pierce questions whether Parks Canada should be running hot pools, considering the organization's mandate includes culture, ecological integrity, conservation and education.

"No wonder they were looking at options," she said.

The first government facility at the Upper Hot Springs in Banff, on the site of today's Rimrock Resort, was constructed in 1904. A decade later, a concrete bathing pool, log bathhouse and a small store were built at the Radium Hot Springs. In Jasper, the Miette Hot Springs were largely developed in the 1930s as part of a depression unemployment relief project. 


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