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Canadiana, Environment

Parks Canada the Institution: Celebrating 100 years of Canada’s National Parks

The giant, inflatable Parks Canada beaver at the Montreal Parks Day Festival

No one can accuse Parks Canada of not pulling out all the stops to celebrate its 100th birthday in style. The Parks Canada website has been overhauled to reflect this important milestone; the establishment of the first urban new national park has been announced for Rouge Valley in Toronto; free parks passes have been granted to all Grade 8 students in Canada; the Xplorer program has been launched to engage with youth; an impressive, thirteen-part series called the National Parks Project has been undertaken with beauty and style; a new mascost, a new national campfire song competition, national Parks Day festivities with concerts and demonstrations and swag – and this isn’t even all of it!

I think it is safe to say that after 100 years in existence, Parks Canada has finally grown up. And the 100th anniversary celebrations have been a testament to this, demonstrating that our National Parks are no longer an obscure idea that exist on the outskirts and backwoods of Canada – that while they may be far away, in some cases, they are a vital part of how we think of Canada as a nation.

After a visit to the American Southwest in 2009, I was better able to appreciate the extent to which the U.S. National Parks System is woven into the fabric of American society in a way that has no equal in Canada. While the U.S. has (to pick only a few) John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs (to say nothing of Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson), Canada has James Harkin, the first director of the Parks Branch. Never heard of him? Not surprising, because we seem to have few conservation or environmental hero’s of national acclaim that are widely known. By and large, this has meant that our extensive and ever-growing system of National Parks (NP) and National Historic Sites have quietly and modestly gone about their business of protecting ecological diversity and welcoming visitors without large-scale public awareness.

You can even look at the numbers: our busiest NP is Banff, which welcomes over 3.1M visitors per year. But Banff is atypical – it garners over three times the visitors that the next busiest park gets. According to 2010 numbers, other NP’s receive anywhere from a few thousand to two people. Two. Great Smokey Mountains NP in America, by contrast, receives more than all of our NP’s combined in one year when they welcome over 9M visitors. Toss in the Grand Canyon and that’s another 4M annual visitors. And the difference cannot be explained in terms of natural wonder of beauty – Gros Morne NP in Newfoundland, to take one example, can rival any NP in America.

So how to explain the discrepancy? A massive population difference goes some way to understanding the issue, but I think it goes deeper than that. I am willing to wager that Canadians can list more American NP’s than Canadian NP’s. And I don’t blame them: America does an excellent job at advertising its Parks to its own citizens, and the world at large. Every NP I visited in the American Southwest was branded – and I don’t say this as a bad thing.

Retro Poster for Yosemite NP

The Grand Canyon brand, the Bryce Canyon brand, the Death Valley brand – all of these parks have realized that they need to stand out in a marketplace bustling with groups vying for people’s attention and dollars. And without going down the road of creating the Pepsi Grand Canyon 3D Experience, they have managed to find a viable way to compete for people’s attention.

Most of that, no doubt, comes from the natural splendor of the places themselves. Yosemite in California is world unto itself, and no t-shirt with a picture of El Capitan on it can compete. But their successful branding has allowed them to tap into people’s desire for memento’s, gifts, books, and posters to remember their trip by. When balanced successfully with proper ecological protection, this can elevate a natural space from a park to an institution, which can be imparted to, and shared by, their citizens.

And it is in this vein that Park’s Canada has matured, because it is now that they are becoming more and more successful at turning the idea of Canada’s National Parks into a Canadian institution. Free Parks Passes to Grade 8 students; new National Parks in urban areas with large numbers of new Canadians; youth programs; song competitions advertised on CBC Radio 2; the National Parks Project, a music and filmmaking series aimed at urban, apathetic 20-somethings who may think of going to New York before going to Bruce Peninsula NP in Tobermory, ON, but who may change their mind when they see John K. Sampson from The Weakerthans go.

Advertising efforts and merchandise aside, the massive centennial effort to educate and inform Canadians about what exists in their own backyard – their own massive, sprawling backyard –  fits perfectly with this plan of elevating the Parks from natural spaces into national treasures, worthy of our appreciation, and, more importantly, our protection.

Parks Canada is doing a tremendous service to all Canadians and our National Parks this year in shedding light onto the wilderness that surrounds us. Thank them by visiting one of our beautiful National Parks, and help invest in the future of wild spaces in Canada.

About awreeves

Editor-in-chief at Alternatives Journal. Author of 'Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian carp Crisis'.


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