The lands we now refer to as Canada have been home for First Nation peoples for millennia. Over the past 400 years, thousands of “parks” have been identified throughout the Canadian landscape. Most of these parks have a complex establishment history. Many of Canada’s parks were founded based on initial ideals of either natural wilderness or a significantly altered landscape for the protection of nature, or for improving personal and community health. Many 18th and 19th century municipal parks were set aside predominantly to address poor community health conditions that were often directly related to industrial activities that supported the economic growth of these communities.
Parks were viewed as refuges that could help alleviate the unsanitary conditions found in growing settlements, towns and cities. This European or Western concept of a “park” was not shared by the Indigenous communities across Canada who shared the view that humans are to be much more integrated with the natural world. Georges Erasmus, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations reflecting on past Aboriginal concepts and land values in his 2003 research report “Honouring the Promise: Aboriginal Values in Protected Areas in Canada” noted that “to us, on these continents now known as the Americas, all the land was virtually a conservation area – one large ‘park’ if you can imagine it that way – and that was how our ancestors wanted it maintained”. Sadly, early governments and their associated park agencies often forcibly displaced many Indigenous residents to create desired park spaces across Canada.
EUROPEAN INFLUENCES & PARKS IN CANADA FROM THE 16TH – 21ST CENTURY
The European concept of setting aside land as a “park” in Canada can be traced back to 1583 near what is now St. Johns, Newfoundland. Shortly after his arrival, Sir Humphrey Gilbert promulgated several “laws” to be observed which included setting aside a small wild garden with roses and raspberries in concert with annexing of the surrounding lands now known as Newfoundland for England. In 1763, the “Halifax Commons” were also set aside by England’s King George III granting the 235 acres of common land “for the use of the inhabitants of the Town of Halifax forever.”
These included Garrison Reserve in Toronto (1848) and Kingston’s City Park (1851). Ontario’s first park enactment dedicated Gore Square to the City of Hamilton in 1852 by Provincial Act. This individual park statute was followed some 30 years later by the Public Parks Act of 1883 – the first of its kind in Canada. This act set out the authority for municipalities to establish and manage a “system of parks, avenues, boulevards and drives” for public use, and has remained essentially the same over the last 143 years. Provinces and Territories across Canada have all adopted similar legislation in an effort to formally establish public park areas throughout the country.
In Canada, the earliest park statutes were passed to establish individual parks. These included:
• High Park in Toronto (1873)
• Mount Royal Park in Montreal (1876)
• Stanley Park in Vancouver (1886)
Moving from the local scale, the first regional level park legislation in Canada was passed in 1880 to enable the federal government to establish a park at Niagara Falls. In British Columbia, the Parks (Regional) Act was first adopted in 1965 and set the stage for regional park systems in British Columbia to contribute to the establishment of public park areas both within and outside of municipal boundaries in B.C. Park statutes to establish “park systems” were passed in Canada, the Provinces and Territories beginning in 1911 (Canada) and concluded in 1979 (Yukon).
Canada’s incredible diversity of parks is no coincidence. We are blessed with an abundance of nature. We have more lakes than the rest of the world combined. We have the longest coastline. We are home to one fifth of Earth’s forests and one quarter of its wetlands. And we are a northern nation, with 40% of our landmass in the Arctic.
But the Canada of today is not the Canada of yesterday. Demographic and social changes across the country are fundamentally changing our relationship with the outdoors; changes which are having profound personal, community and societal impacts. We have become an urban nation, with 80% of us living in cities, where nature is much less present.
We are a mosaic of cultures from all corners of the earth, with diverse, and sometimes uncomfortable views of our great wilderness. We spend 90% of our time indoors, leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles that are contributing to a host of chronic health diseases and rapidly escalating health care costs. Our community ties are being strained, as our lives become busier, more structured, and more inward-focused. Our children are facing alarming rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, stress, attention deficit and depression.
Canada’s natural environment is facing equally concerning and complex challenges. The health of all Canadian ecosystems is trending downwards. With some remarkable exceptions, Canada’s species at risk are facing uphill challenges. Increasing competition for land use is decreasing opportunities for new parks and threatening the integrity of existing parks. While the most significant threat to nature is from the loss and degradation of natural habitats, this is being compounded by other major threats such as climate change and invasive species.
THE 2015 – 2017 “PARKS FOR ALL” PROJECT
www.cpra.ca/parks-for-all Parks for All is a groundswell initiative in Canada formed in 2015 by people that see, believe and recognize the very complex history of Canada’s landscape and how parks have been established over the past 400 years. We are trying to gain a better understanding of the essential values found in parks, the outdoors and nature that support our current and future well-being. So who are ‘we’?
So far, we are Indigenous people, urban and not so urban people, non-government agencies, educators, advocates and all levels of government. We are practitioners, administrators, professionals of all disciplines, as well as people of no specific affiliation. We have been somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows learning how to speak together about parks, which is an issue of mutual interest, but we have at times found trouble finding the right words to make a connection. We are the people who live on this land now, who welcome the gift of new beginnings through truth and reconciliation, and recognize the role of nature in being a place to teach us about our past so that we can move forward together.
So what is Parks for All? It is a plan and a call to action for the parks community being led by a team of dedicated volunteers and supported through the Canadian Parks Council (CPC) and the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA). Parks for All is a Strategic Framework based on evidence, which has been developed through conversation, debate, and sometimes uncomfortable realizations about the assumptions we each bring to the table.
In April of 2016, 200 delegates met in Canmore at the Canadian Parks Summit to review a first draft of Parks for All that resulted in rich feedback and insight. This was followed by the very successful Canadian Parks Conference which hosted over 350 delegates in Banff, Alberta this past March (2017). The current draft of Parks for All (#2) tells our story and identifies priority actions that individuals and organizations across Canada need to undertake to make a difference in bettering Parks for All, today and for generations to come.
Now some Indigenous leaders see the same parks they were excluded from as places where reconciliation can take root. This was evident in Banff, Alberta earlier this year where Indigenous delegates, public agency staff, and conservationists converged. Many delegates who attended the 2016 Canadian Parks Summit and the 2017 Parks Conference are now considering how Canada’s system of parks could be places where a broken relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians can begin healing.
Those invested in the initiative are hopeful that First Nations representatives, individuals, governments and organizations from across Canada will find a shared position enough to endorse a Parks for All Strategic Framework later this year. And those of us charged with the oversight of Canada’s parks systems will take up the call to seek new beginnings, using nature as a safe space for cultural exchange and understanding. Visit www.cpra.ca/parks-for-all
MURRAY KOPP is the Director of the Parks Services Department at the Regional District of Central Okanagan (RDCO) and currently volunteers some of his time in a role as Chair of the Canadian Parks & Recreation Association’s (CPRA) Parks Task Group. A major focus of Murray’s recent “corner of the desk” activities have included acting as Co-Chair of the 2016 Canadian Parks Summit event held in Canmore, Alberta (April 2016), a continuing role as Co-Chair of the 2016 – 2017 “Parks for All” initiative as well as his recent appointment to a Parks Canada led National Steering Committee – Pathway to Target 1 (Canada’s Commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity – Aichi Biodiversity Targets). firstname.lastname@example.org.