When Parks Canada built a two-metre wooden fence near the visitor centre of the Signal Hill National Historic site in St. John’s last summer, blocking famous views of the city and its harbour, local staff said in internal communications they didn’t anticipate the onslaught of public outcry that would ensue.
Documents obtained under access-to-information laws show the federal agency’s main reason at the time for building the $65,000 structure was a means to bring in more cash by controlling access to the adjacent performance field.
“The addition of the gate and fencing should result in increased revenues and the creation of a multipurpose space which can be used for concerts and other revenue-generating events,” the documents read.
Parks Canada also said it wouldn’t hold public consultations about the proposed project.
“While any changes to the site are closely watched and often scrutinized by the general public, it is not anticipated that the addition of the fence will be viewed negatively,” the documents note.
But less than a week after the fence was in place, complaints started rolling in to the office of Seamus O’Regan, the MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl. Then there was social media criticism from comedian Rick Mercer.
As the controversy grew, new reasons for the fence started to appear in the internal Parks Canada documents, including to address “long-standing public safety, security and traffic noise issues” in the area.
“Staff have reported numerous ‘near-miss’ incidents in recent years, particularly during performances of the Signal Hill Tattoo when traffic is especially heavy,” the documents note, referencing the internationally renowned historical re-enactment program.
Yet, when local Parks Canada staff were pressed internally for statistics of these incidents, they didn’t exist.
Parks Canada didn’t make anyone available for an interview with CBC News.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the department said the fence was intended to improve visitor experience and address safety concerns during the Signal Hill Tattoo and other performances.
The federal agency said it heard the public’s concerns and removed the fence soon after it was erected.
While “near-miss” incidents weren’t documented, Parks Canada said the potential for an incident to occur was addressed in 2015, when temporary camouflage netting was installed during the summer months and additional staff were assigned to the performance field.
“Parks Canada will address the documentation of ‘near-miss’ incidents internally going forward,” the statement reads.
The agency also said while projects like this one don’t normally involve formal consultations, the public will be informed on future projects at Signal Hill.
Work began in 2018
The documents give a behind-the-scenes look at what people were saying privately, before and during the very public controversy.
The detailed design and planning work for the fence started in the fall of 2018, to build “a new visually appealing permanent fence and gateway to control access to the Tattoo Performance Field.”
At the time, local Parks Canada staff reviewed the design options.
“I like the wooden [picket] look. I think it would limit non-paying onlookers the best,” said one employee in an email.
The report was later emailed to other Parks Canada staff members for review.
Some feedback on the report questioned the proposed height of the fence.
“Why so high? This height will hide the viewscape considerably,” one comment reads.
Another report notes that about 750,000 people visit Signal Hill each year, but just a fraction of that total — about 15,000 people — enter the visitor centre and speak with Parks Canada staff.
“The development of this space will lead to higher visitor satisfaction and revenue generation by creating a more enticing space around the [visitor centre], attracting more visitors to the [centre], the café, and the Tattoo program,” the documents read.
Complaints start pouring in
Construction began in 2019. The performance area fence posts were installed on June 19, and work on the white cedar panels began on July 9.
On the afternoon of July 14, Parks Canada received an email from O’Regan’s office.
“We’ve got some complaints about a wooden fence on Signal Hill obstructing the views of the city. I believe it’s gained some attention on social media. Is this a temporary fence? Or is it a permanent structure?” the email asked.
That’s when internal Parks Canada emails brought up new reasons for the fence, noting “the need for noise protection for the performance field, etc.”
The following morning, there’s the first documented mention of the issue of safety at the national historic site.
“The barrier also addresses safety issues created by drivers slowing down or stopping during events on the performance field to see what is happening (‘craning’),” the documents read.
It also said the fence acts as a barrier to reduce traffic noise, “which has been a constant issue during performances and events on the performance field.”
That afternoon, internal pressures rose as the office for then-federal environment minister Catherine McKenna reached out, seeking more information.
Rick Mercer tweets
The following morning, on July 16, Mercer voiced his disgust about the fence on social media.
“This topic is very popular on Twitter right now … Parks Canada is being tagged in almost every comment,” states an internal social media report.
Half way up Signal Hill in St. John’s – <a href=”https://twitter.com/ParksCanada?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@ParksCanada</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/ParksCanadaNL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@ParksCanadaNL</a> have built a fence designed to block the view. Welcome to NL nothing to see here. <a href=”https://t.co/f8xnHo3R4I”>pic.twitter.com/f8xnHo3R4I</a>
“The majority if not all comments on the issue are negative.”
By mid-morning, interview requests had piled in from local media.
“Parks Canada is very aware of the importance of viewscapes to the visitor experience at Signal Hill,” states the federal agency’s media response.
“Please note that the fence is not intended to block the view toward the harbour, but instead securing a performance area.”
‘I don’t see how it addresses safety’
On the evening of July 16 and into the morning of July 17, there was a flurry of emails back and forth, escalating to higher levels of federal government, seeking answers.
“Did we do any community engagement prior to installation? Probably needed a heads-up on this one before it proceeded,” a top Parks Canada official said in an email.
“I have seen the media lines — they are written largely from our perspective and not really from a community enjoyment perspective.”
The environment minister’s office also came back with further questions: “Do we have any recorded ‘incidents’ that justify us saying the fence will help address safety issues/near misses?”
One local Parks Canada employee wrote: “I don’t believe we have record of actual incidents, no.”
This will be a gong show. … She may direct us to just take it down. I am inclined to agree, to be honest.
– Email from a senior Parks Canada official
“As far as near misses, we haven’t had accidents,” wrote another employee.
“But there [have] been numerous and constant cases of cars stopping directly in the middle of the lane to take photos and watch activities. There has also been cases of cars attempting to pass stopped cars when there’s heavy pedestrian traffic.”
Another senior Parks Canada official weighed in.
“I don’t get how we thought something [of this] scale would not provoke a reaction,” he wrote in an email. “I don’t see how it addresses safety.”
On the morning of July 17, there was a call with the minister’s office.
“This will be a gong show. Good example of having to make a tough decision though,” said that same Parks Canada official in an email.
“She may direct us to just take it down. I am inclined to agree, to be honest.”
‘Immediate’ plan to take the fence down
By the afternoon of July 17 — just eight days after the fence was put up — there were instructions from McKenna to take it down.
The decision was made to leave the fence posts in place and go back to using the temporary netting “until a more efficient and effective solution is found.”
A press release from the minister’s office noted that “the current solution clearly missed the mark.”
Parks Canada staff started taking down the fence in the early morning hours of July 18, and the final panels were removed the following day.
The federal agency is now providing the same response to CBC News that it did in its media response last July: Parks Canada will “ensure that the public, partners and stakeholders are appropriately informed of future activities related to the Signal Hill performance field.”
As for a permanent solution, that’s still in the works.
“Parks Canada will continue to explore more permanent options that will meet public safety requirements and improve the visitor experience, while not obstructing the view from that area of Signal Hill National Historic Site.”