Above: Prince Albert National Park 📷 www.jamrockmagazine.com
By contributor Chantelle Spicer
Every Canadian city, no matter how small, has parks. Parks are where we find peace, quiet, recreation, play, reflection. These bits of land, saved from encroaching development, can appear as windows into how the city and residents see themselves.
Take Bowen Park for example—a jewel of a park—which harbours old-growth Cedar and Douglas Fir, along with a productive salmon run right in the heart of Nanaimo. The neighbourhoods which surround the many parks of Nanaimo have higher taxes and are more valuable on the market—people see and pay for the benefits that come from being near wild or recreational places.
Even the website for the city states “Nanaimo’s greatest assets are public outdoor spaces,” boasting over 880 acres of parks and 173 km of trails. The parks and trails here really are stunning. They embrace the diversity of a landscape I love, and educate on geology, culture, history, and ecological issues, working to connect the past to our present. Our parks are often not manicured, leaving the land to the natural species and processes. I can be outdoors, feel the cold sea air on my face or breathe air freshly made by grand trees. They simultaneously reflect and shape the way I see myself as a grateful resident of Nanaimo and the Island.
But what about the grand parks—areas that supposedly epitomize a provincial or Canadian landscape? The overarching mandate of Parks Canada is to “protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment” on behalf of the people of Canada past, present, and future. They represent the 39 regions, which range from mountain top glaciers to marine ecosystems, forests to prairies, resulting in 47 National Parks.
Yet, that term “significant” always irks me; how does one decide that a particular landscape or place of cultural heritage is significant enough to be deemed a national site. The very idea of significance is against everything that a park should stand for, in my opinion—that all is equal and a part of nature in that place and moment. So, what has the government declared significant enough and how does it fit into the Canadian identity being crafted by these decisions?
Let’s look at those that are most famous in the West—Banff and Jasper, which are also both recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These are the true gems of the park system, creating awe and respect for the Canadian landscape (alongside money of course), but also speak to the epitome of Canadian identity, founded on westward movement, development, and survival in the wilds of the Great White North.
Banff, the largest of Canada’s national parks (and the world’s third), covers 6,641 kms² of rugged glaciers, mountains, alpine lakes, and meadows. When I think of a Canadian park, this is my mental image, which appears to be the opinion of many people around the world, as the park receives over 3 million visitors each year. Unlike many other parks which allow visitors to traipse, explore, and experience the wilds and life of the land, 97 percent of the 11,000 square kms of Jasper is off-limits to visitors, which makes the town more of a destination than the land itself.
Canada’s least visited national park is the Tuktut Nogait Park, which is located 170 km north of the Arctic Circle, which received only eight visitors in 2014. As most of us sit right along the border, the north remains a romanticized, allusive, and dangerous landscape that is the last frontier of what it means to be Canadian—it is true wilderness. The park was created in 1998 in an effort to protect the calving ground of caribou (the park’s name translates to “young caribou” in Inuvialuktun). Unlike other parks, Tuktut Nogait does not seek to “facilitate amazing visitor experiences through improved campgrounds, trail and wifi access.” Instead, its few visitors are offered 16,000 square kms of the natural world, untouched by the trappings of modern society. There are more than 500 cultural sites within the park ranging from 100-40,000 years ago, most of which have never known an archaeologist’s hands. The greatest number of visitors are experienced in the form of 20,000 caribou and millions of migrating birds.
These parks are but a blip in the offerings of this country. All hold their own space in the hearts of visitors and the land, as well as Canada. I do not think any of them are more significant than anywhere else I have been in this country—each place is a part of the Canadian experience, including your own backyard. National Parks may not hold the answer to what it means to be Canadian, but they do work as a reminder that where we live in extremely powerful and diverse—and that each of us are as well.
So maybe it does answer that question of what it means to be Canadian after all—have respect for all, for we—humans, wildlife, and land alike—are all significant.
This year, in celebration of its 150th birthday, Canada is offering Discover passes to anyone for free. This gives you free access to those parks which charge admission. To get yours, visit pc.gc.ca.