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Federal government's 'cowardly' response won't deter SS Keewatin supporters

Canadian Heritage official says ministry won't stop historic vessel's potential move from Port McNicoll to Kingston
2021-03-02 ap
The SS Keewatin arrived with great fanfare upon its return to Georgian Bay in 2012.

Hopes the SS Keewatin remains in its home port seem to have been dealt a serious blow.

In a letter obtained by MidlandToday, a Minister of Canadian Heritage staffer tells Keewatin boosters that since the ship is privately owned, the decision of where it resides rests solely in the hands of its owners Skyline Investments.

Writing on behalf of Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbault, Josée Ethier tells Dan Travers and other supporters that the government won’t become involved in the push to keep Skyline from moving the Edwardian-era vessel from Port McNicoll to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston for a charitable tax receipt.

“The Government of Canada recognizes the important work that has been done by the Friends of the Keewatin and the volunteers towards the preservation of the ship,” writes Ethier, who serves as director of the Ministerial Correspondence Secretariat. “However, it is important to note that the decision to donate the property to one heritage organization over another is a private matter.”

But Travers, who spearheaded the Keep Keewatin Home sign and website campaign, said that while Keewatin supporters are disappointed with the response, they’re not entirely surprised.

“It is a cowardly response from the minister's office,” Travers said, pointing out the emailed response he received Wednesday follows a letter he and other supporters sent in January.

“We know that the federal government has the power to bring historical artifacts of considerable heritage and historical value under their protection, this is what we are now asking the heritage minister to do, until arbitration can decide the vessel's status.”

In her letter, Ethier goes on to say that the department does not have the authority to refuse to review eligible applications for designation.

“Applications are diligently reviewed to determine whether an organization meets the necessary criteria to ensure the long-term preservation and access of the cultural property,” she said, noting that as the subject Travers raised falls under the purview of Parks Canada, she has forwarded his correspondence to Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson for his consideration.

As well, Travers pointed out the response fails to appreciate the mechanism under which Skyline wishes to dispose of the vessel.

“What Skyline wants is a federal tax receipt in excess of $10 million,” Travers explained. “Ergo, if the federal government continues this course of non-involvement, Canadian taxpayers will be expected to front this money for the appropriation of our community’s heritage.

“The majority of these funds going to a development company which boasts $700 million worth of assets on its website.”

Built in Scotland, the vessel was launched on July 6, 1907, five years before the Titanic. It was retired in 1966 after spending almost 60 seasons transporting passengers.

Travers says any taxpayer funds should be used to keep the SS Keewatin in its home berth, and for the long-term preservation of the ship.

Added Keewatin curator Fred Addis: “There is not a single dollar of funding that Kingston is eligible for that we here in Port McNicoll are not.”

Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton said Guilbault is essentially pushing this off as a process that is independent of politics, “this being the application of the Kingston Museum to attain Category B status so that they might receive the SS Keewatin as cultural property under Canada’s Import and Export of Cultural Property regime.”

Stanton noted that the transaction will likely result in some form of sizeable tax credit from the federal government in return for the company gifting the vessel to a “so-designated” museum or cultural institution.

“Yes, the ship is owned by Skyline and these processes are open to them to apply,” said Stanton, who this spring presented a petition in the House of Commons outlining the ship's historic significance to the region.

“It is a sad reality that they control the situation, even though they brought the ship here and enticed hundreds of people in our area to participate in her successful launch as a key attraction, based on their commitment Keewatin would stay in Port McNicoll.”

While he understands circumstances can change, Stanton said it doesn’t dismiss the fact the government may fork over millions of dollars of tax credits without any regard for Keewatin's home community.

He added: “If the Friends of Keewatin had a fraction of those dollars, they could easily make her into a sustainable, independent attraction for years to come.”

And despite the apparent setback, Travers said he and other Friends of Keewatin members aren’t letting up.

“Now we are able to gather safely, we hope to rally our supporters for an event or events in the near future,” said Travers, who declined to say what those specific events might be.

“We will have more information on specific actions in the next few days.”

Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Community Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country‚Äôs most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago.
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