The recent announcement regarding the closure of Field Elementary School was the culmination of a slow but steady decline in the village’s ability to attract young families.
Craig Chapman, a longtime local who also serves as the chair of the Field Community Council, blames Parks Canada for the village’s current situation, citing a reduction in the town site in the late 1990s, a lack of well-kept housing and increased incentives for Parks Canada workers to live elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, Parks Canada as an agency…has not been very supportive to Field as a community in terms of addressing these problems,” he said.
The townsite reduction was particularly harmful, says Chapman, as it affected a mobile home park that represented the bulk of the village’s entry-level housing.
Ellen Francis, the townsites and realty manager for Yoho National Park, says that the reduction of the Field townsite was done in accordance with Parks Canada’s mandate.
“(The trailer park) was located in a wildlife corridor,” Francis explained.
“Parks Canada phased out the trailer court for the purpose of improving ecological integrity and reducing human-wildlife conflicts.”
Chapman has never bought into that explanation, claiming that much of the village is a wildlife corridor, including much more problematic areas such as the old RCMP detachment where bears frequently pass by.
Instead, Chapman and other longtime residents of Field believe that the reduction in the town site was done in order to justify expansions within Banff National Park. In fact, it’s a common belief among residents that Field is regularly neglected in favour of Banff.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody that didn’t think that,” Chapman said.
According to Francis, Parks Canada has made significant investments in the village of Field in recent years to ensure its sustainability.
“We recognize the importance of the community of Field, the role it plays in Yoho National Park and we are committed to working with Field Community Council and residents to shape the future of the National Park, to help grow local tourism, create jobs, and housing is part of what we work towards in that as well,” Francis said.
Chapman was critical of the condition of many of the housing units in Field.
“Parks Canada housing in town, does it fill the need for the community, have they maintained it and kept it in good condition that makes it attractive? No,” Chapman said.
“They’re housing is atrocious. You’re talking kitchens which were fitted out in the ‘50s and ‘60s that haven’t been renovated,” he continued while also claiming that two former Parks Canada houses in town are sitting vacant, having become uninhabitable.
Francis acknowledged that improvements could be made, but that work is ongoing within rental units owned by Parks Canada.
“We’re doing a lot of work and making a lot of investments to ensure that, especially the housing that we are directly responsible for, is always being maintained and improved,” she said, adding that work is being done from minor plumbing repairs to bathroom renovations.
Francis also believes that the travel allowance given by Parks Canada for workers that choose to live in Golden is offset by the fact that Field residents don’t pay municipal taxes and enjoy relatively low rental costs.
“Parks Canada needs to make sure that we attract employees and we can create incentives for them to live in the communities in which they work, but like anyone, everyone has a choice as to where they’re going to live,” she said.
Given this information, it’s not unfair to wonder about Field’s long-term sustainability. Chapman believes it may go the way of the townsite in Waterton Lakes National Park, where a seasonal population keeps the village bustling in the summer but very few residents remain for the winter.
“For the last 15 years (I’ve) been pushing that Field’s going to become another Waterton, it’s going to just really be a summer orientated service centre if Parks doesn’t change their attitude and positioning on it,” he said.
“Things can change…but unless Parks Canada changes the equation, that’s going to be the problem. There’s just not enough housing, not enough opportunity.”