The Wisdom of Our National Parks

Canada's parks have never been purely natural spaces—but they tell us a lot about who we are

Photograph by Michael Muraz
Photograph by Michael Muraz

When Parks Canada opened online applications for its 2017 Discovery Pass, which gives free entry to the country’s national parks and historic sites this year, so many people rushed to its website that it crashed. It seemed a too-Canadian moment: a rush on national parks—in December.

Parks Canada has devoted a great deal of energy in the past decade to increasing visitor numbers. They have offered learn-to-camp sessions and ready-made oTENTik cabins. They have featured more people of colour on their social media in an attempt to attract newer Canadians and those from different ethnic backgrounds. They have even ostentatiously planted bright red oversized Muskoka chairs at the best viewpoints for ready-made selfies. But evidently, all they had to do was eliminate the entrance fee.

I grew up camping in national parks. Even as we travelled across the country, from maritime shorelines to mountain ridges, the constancy of the park landscape was comfortingly familiar: The brown-and-yellow colour scheme (now green and white) on the parking pass and the this-way-to-the-trail signs; the wooden amphitheatres for evening programs led by biologists wearing badges blazoned with the stylized beaver silhouette; the campground lot with a picnic table, maybe an electric hook-up, ideally surrounded by lots of trees. My father preferred national parks to any other kinds of campgrounds because they felt more authentic, more natural. And they were destinations in themselves. They had the things Canada was famous for, places we were supposed to see, like Banff and Jasper and the Icefields Parkway, or Cavendish Beach on Prince Edward Island.

The contradictions in all of this never occurred to us at the time. If national parks are supposed to be protected areas of natural beauty, what happens when we all show up? How can a place simultaneously be natural and a tourist destination? When did nature get a colour scheme? Now I wonder if I was learning about local ecologies, or imprinting on nature as designed by Parks Canada.

Fundamentally, our national parks aren’t natural spaces. The campgrounds I remember tell us much more about how Canadians in the 1920s or 1960s wanted to enjoy nature than they do the ecology of the Rocky Mountains. Environmental historians, who study the relationship between people and nature, have tried to describe these kinds of places as “second nature” or “hybrid landscapes”: not nature apart from people, but nature remade by people. National parks are a kind of historical snapshot. They preserve certain moments from our history, different political priorities, as much as they do bits of regional ecosystems. And they can tell us much more about who we are and how we interact with nature than we think.

When Banff became Canada’s first national park in 1887, the country was drawing on a concept that had existed elsewhere for a long time. The spa resort—the restorative experience of “taking the waters”—had been popular with the well-to-do in Europe for decades, and the United States had already poached the idea when it established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. For both Canada and the United States, the national park became a useful means of claiming the western interior and in the process acquiring iconic images of territory to nurture a sense of national identity.

A North American national park had to offer something worth seeing, but it also required the means to get there: something to sell, and a market to sell it to. In 1883, workers with the Canadian Pacific Railway pushing through the Rocky Mountains accidentally discovered a hot springs—now the Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff. It’s difficult to know who would have been happier: Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who could promote the mountain scenery as a symbol of national greatness; or William Van Horne of the CPR, who saw a way to recoup the expenses of building a transcontinental railway through two-way tourist traffic. (He reportedly declared, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”) A national park elevated the mammoth, costly, but ultimately prosaic construction of a transcontinental railway into what historian Pierre Berton would later call the national dream.

The legislation that created national parks in these early years imagined a particular kind of public space. Parks would be off-limits to private sale or settlement, but not from timber, mining, or, crucially, tourism. The Rocky Mountain Parks Act of 1887 supplied the founding mandate for all parks to follow: “The said tract of land is hereby reserved and set apart as a public park and pleasure ground for the benefit, advantage and enjoyment of the people of Canada.” National parks were not imagined as a way to preserve nature, but to reserve nature for people’s use. And for all the inclusive language about “the people of Canada,” the château design of the railway hotels, along with the diligent removal of Indigenous people, conveyed a preference for a certain class of visitor. The result is today’s Banff: a national park with a bustling town lined with high-end shopping, where you can buy lingerie more easily than you can buy camping equipment.

If the idea of a national park dates to the 1880s, the typical style of park dates to the 1920s and 1930s. The Dominion Parks Branch, established in 1911, was the world’s first government agency devoted to national parks (bureaucracy: it’s a Canadian idea). And it approached parks as a project in consumer democracy. If parks were for the “benefit, advantage, and enjoyment of the people of Canada,” then the people of Canada needed to know about them, and be able to get there. This meant promotion and advertising, more parks in eastern Canada, and, most importantly in the new automobile age, highways and road-based infrastructure built to, in, and through them.

Furthermore, as destinations, parks could serve as regional attractions in areas suffering economically. All four national parks created between 1930 and 1960 followed a similar formula: they were framed around a coastal highway drive to maximize scenic views, and included a golf course. All four were located in Atlantic Canada, as coal mines closed and Maritimers looked down the road. Today, nets catch stray golf balls hit from the Green Gables golf course before they can hit anyone walking in the woods. These parks might seem quaintly dated now—Parks Canada doesn’t put golf courses or upscale resorts in national parks anymore—but they certainly appealed to the mid-century expectations of “benefit, advantage, and enjoyment.” More to the point, they continue to do so.

While most Canadians view national parks in much the same way now as they would have in 1926 or 1956, Canada’s Indigenous peoples often questioned the very idea of a space purported to be natural, reserved for recreation, and governed by the state. This has especially been true in the North. In the past forty years, the majority of national parks have been created there, and on a larger and larger scale. This is partly because so much of the North remained federal territory, partly because southerners have become more familiar with its lands and resources (thanks, ironically, to mineral and oil and gas exploration), and partly because of its symbolic value. Think of Pierre Trudeau standing beside Nahanni Falls, or Harper announcing the discovery of the ships of the Franklin Expedition. National parks are an eco-friendly checkmate move in international diplomacy; what better way to suggest not just sovereignty and federal authority, but a nation’s sentimental investment in a place, than to create a national park there?

But if northern parks appealed to southern sentiments, they have not necessarily appealed to northerners. Boundaries for proposed parks at Nahanni and Kluane overlapped with high profile land-claim cases and an increasingly visible presence of Indigenous history, occupancy, and use. Along with wilderness grandeur, Parks Canada began to talk in terms of “cultural landscape.” In 1974, the National Parks Act was amended to include provisions for traditional harvesting such as hunting and fishing, and the new concept of a national park reserve: land which could be included or excluded from a future national park pending settlement of any land claims on the one hand, or discovery of mineral resources on the other. Perhaps because these parks were so distant, however, they did not really dislodge the rhetorical appeal of parks-as-wilderness, which is how most settler Canadians wanted (and continue) to imagine them. In yet another irony, these new parks—which formally recognized a longstanding human presence on the land—attract almost no new people. Last year, Banff saw nearly 4 million visitors; Aulavik, none.

The answer to why we insist on thinking of national parks as wilderness lies partly in policy, and partly in ideology. Parliament revised the National Parks Act in 1930 to pair “benefit, education and enjoyment” with a mandate to maintain the parks “so as to leave them unimpaired for future generations.” (Here too we borrowed an idea from the Americans, who had adopted the phrase fourteen years before.) This is, of course, a paradoxical and impossible task, and yet it is exactly what we have always expected of national parks: preservation to ensure visitation.

It was not until the late 1960s, when popular parks like Banff were being worn to exhaustion, that scientists and environmentalists began to invoke the phrase that would become Parks Canada’s tagline. Shortly thereafter, the National Parks System Plan divided the country into thirty-nine “natural regions” and promised to someday have at least one park representative of each. National parks were to be samples of ecology rather than tourist destinations. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, environmental considerations became more prominent in the federal bureaucracy and in park management. The current version of the National Parks Act provides the strongest language to date, stating that “maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority . . . when considering all aspects of the management of parks” (emphasis added).

At the same time, despite growing pressures on the ecological health of the parks, their symbolic value remains undiminished. National parks offer images of nature as we wish it were, not as we have made it. This is another legacy of colonial nation-building in the nineteenth century: the quest to find a national identity in the vastness of the land; to colonize an incomprehensible wild into a “natural heritage.” Many of our most powerful stories are still rooted in what historian W. L. Morton called the basic rhythm of Canadian life: “the alternate penetration of the wilderness and return to civilization,” a rhythm that could describe voyageurs and weekend canoeists alike. It is how we like to see ourselves.

But it is not all we are. In many ways, the paradox of the dual mandate is a perfect expression of the Canadian relationship with nature. We are deeply committed to using the natural environment, as symbol and resource, through park passes and pipelines. Unlike the United States, we have no Wilderness Act that defines wild nature and makes its protection a national responsibility. The parks have never been islands sheltered from the prevailing political and economic winds. Even the islands aren’t islands: Sable Island was named a national park in 2013, just as the province of Nova Scotia awarded billions of dollars in offshore exploration rights on the Scotian Slope.

I ordered a Discovery Pass, too. I probably won’t get to use it—I live in Pennsylvania now, and am beginning to recognize the enormous privilege that a white, middle-class family from Toronto could blithely assume by toodling about the country in the summer. Not every Canadian has that ease of movement or feeling of home. At the same time, I agree with those who feel that free entry might only further exhaust the parks. Right now, my nostalgia—heightened by homesickness—is tempered by logistics and incertitude. But I do want my three-year-old to see these places one day. Not out of a sense of entitlement or national birthright, and not even because they are beautiful, but because they are complicated: products of an historical relationship between nation and territory, and more importantly, between people and nature. Reorienting that relationship into something healthy and sustainable is the challenge for the world he will grow up in. Ordering the Discovery Pass seemed like a vote in favour of talking about that relationship, for the idea of expanding our protected places, and for a national conversation about what it means to inhabit this land.

Claire Campbell
Claire Campbell is an associate professor of history at Bucknell University. She edited A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, and is the author of a forthcoming book from McGill-Queen's University Press entitled Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Landscapes in Canada.