Ahead by a century

By Marilyn Smulders - January 19, 2011

Claire Campbell
Dalhousie history professor Claire Campbell is the editor of A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011. (Nick Pearce Photo)

Parks Canada marks 100 years in 2011 and, in those 100 years, has been successful in creating a network of more than 40 beloved parks from coast to coast to coast.

Originally, the federal agency known originally as the Dominion Parks Branch was charged with the protection, care and management of national parks. But decades in, it morphed into a tourist bureau of sorts, responsible for marketing these magnificent landscapes as destinations. Throughout the century, Canada’s national parks—and Canadians’ connection to them—have been strongly tied to Canadian identity.

“It was the first time in history that a country had created an agency devoted to managing its national parks,” says Claire Campbell, associate professor of history and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. It would be five more years before the Americans followed suit.

Shifting focus

But through the agency’s shifting focus, environmental protection has sometimes been an afterthought, observes Dr. Campbell, the editor of an upcoming book on Canada’s national parks, A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (University of Calgary Press). Essays in the book explore a variety of issues, ranging from the tensions between the local cottage community and the federal agency in the establishment of Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park in the 1920s, to the resistance of Acadian families to leave their homes as New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park was being established almost 50 years later.

In the 1960s, she notes, Canada’s national parks had been “oversold” and were so popular that “they were getting exhausted.” Banff, which became Canada’s first national park in 1885 predating the national system, “couldn’t bear up under its popularity.” By the 1980s, the park—the crown jewel of the national park system—was besieged by problems including over-commercialization, burgeoning population growth and the displacement of wildlife. In 1988, the Canada Parks Act was amended to make ecological integrity the first priority in park management decisions.

Of course, Banff is by no means the only national park under pressure. Prince Edward Island National Park comprises several high-traffic cultural attractions, such as Green Gables, and encompasses several locations on the island, leading to the habitat fragmentation for its wildlife. Nova Scotia’s Kejimukjik National Park is far from a pristine wilderness; it’s been besieged by airborne pollutants, including those causing acid rain, and pesticide use in the surrounding area. And Waterton Lakes National Park—”where the mountains meet the prairie”—has been developed to the point that every valley has either a road or a hiking trail. Despite the environmental issues facing the parks, Parks Canada's history is important because it represents a wealth of experience—of "lessons learned"—about managing the natural environment.

Conundrum

More recently, says Dr. Campbell, there seems to be a swing back to the original thinking behind Parks Canada’s creation. “National parks were not imagined as a way of preserving nature from people, but as reserving nature for the people’s use,” she writes in the book’s introduction. Perhaps this is not so surprising, she adds, noting the Canada of 2011 is predominantly urban with a large immigrant population. “These people won’t instinctively look and see their cultural identity tied to Banff or Georgian Bay,” says Dr. Campbell, whose own interest in sustainability was nurtured by childhood summers spent on the shores of Georgian Bay. “This relationship with natural spaces needs to be cultivated.”

And that’s the conundrum Parks Canada wrestles with: maintaining ecological integrity while inviting Canadians to come and visit.

“How do you balance these competing forces?” she asks. “Making these beautiful spaces available to Canadians but not having them love them to death?”

SEE ALSO: Tails from de Trailz in Dal News, Nov. 30, 2010


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