Canals have been part of transportation in Canada since the building of three small canal locks at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons in the 1640's to the present-day operation of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Originally built for transportation, trade and in some cases defence, a number of Canada's canals no longer serve commercial purposes, but have developed into places to appreciate and enjoy our cultural and natural heritage through land- and water-based activities.

In recognition of this change from commercial transportation to heritage appreciation, the Government of Canada transferred the responsibility for a number of operating canals in the 1970's from the Minister of Transport to the Minister responsible for Parks Canada. Those canals that continue to be operated for purposes of through navigation as well as for the protection and presentation of their cultural and natural resources are covered by this policy.

Historic canals vary from single locks, such as the St. Peters Canal in Nova Scotia, to complex systems of interconnected locks, channels and natural waterways, such as the Trent–Severn Waterway in Ontario. The latter canals have an impact that goes far beyond the movement of boats from one lock to another. They form extensive cultural and natural heritage corridors that link cities and towns and whose drainage basins encompass large geographical areas. In some cases, the management of these heritage corridors is subject to federal-provincial agreements.

A number of the historic canals, such as the Chambly in Quebec, have been declared to be of national historic significance. In addition, specific resources on certain historic canals have been declared to be of national historic significance. The locks, dams and blockhouses on the Rideau Canal in Ontario are examples of resources that have been so designated.

Providing opportunities and services for appropriate use (as defined in section 3.0 of this policy) of the historic canals is an important part of canal operations. Parks Canada will maintain a proper balance between appropriate use and heritage resource protection, so that the legacy these canals represent will be understood and appreciated. Consultation and cooperation are also important to the effective management of the historic canals. Various levels of government, as well as groups and concerned individuals, have a role in fostering public appreciation, enjoyment and understanding of the values represented by the historic canals.

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