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The Future of Parks: Notes from the 2017 Canadian Parks Conference

 May 9, 2017
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association
In early March, Jess Dunkin, the NWTRPA’s Director, On the Land Programs, attended the 2017 Canadian Parks Conference in Banff.
Nááts’ihch’oh, the NWT’s newest national park. [Photo: Spectacular NWT]

Nááts’ihch’oh, the NWT’s newest national park. [Photo: Spectacular NWT]

In March 2016, the Tsá Tué International Biosphere Reserve, an initiative of the people of Délįne which encompasses Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) and its watershed, became the first Indigenous-led UNESCO-designated reserve in the world. This and other innovative Northern conservation initiatives drew attention at the 2017 Canadian Parks Conference, which took place from March 8-11 in Banff, Alberta. Hosted by the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association, in partnership with the Canadian Parks Council and the Canadian Recreation and Parks Association, the conference brought together park administrators and practitioners, public servants, academics, and conservationists “to re-imagine our relationship with the natural world and…to create practical solutions for our parks in a time of increasing challenge and complexity.” The 2017 gathering built on work undertaken at the 2016 Parks Summit held just down the road in Canmore.

The 2017 conference took place at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, in the heart of Banff National Park. This is Treaty 7 Territory and the ancestral home of the Ĩyãħé Nakoda. They know this place as mĩnĩ hĩħ paa, the place of cascading water, though with the creation of the park in 1885, they lost the right to travel and harvest in their traditional territory. For much of the twentieth century, Ĩyãħé Nakoda’s access to the park was limited to Banff Indian Days and only then on very strict terms. Other Indigenous nations with ties to the area include the Ktunaxa, Siksika, Tsuu T’ina, Kainai, Pikunni, and Secwepemc.

With 6 keynotes and 7 concurrent sessions over three days, it’s impossible for one person to capture the gathering in its entirety. Nevertheless, there were a number of themes that emerged during the conference.

Indigenous Peoples, Parks, and Conservation

One of the criticisms of the 2016 Parks Summit was that Indigenous participation was minimal. Canadian Parks Conference organizers took heed of this feedback. An Indigenous Committee, chaired by NWT resident Steven Nitah, developed a conference program that included an opening keynote by Elder Dave Courchene of Sagkeeng First Nation in Treaty 1 territory (Manitoba), as well as a number of sessions on Indigenous conservation initiatives, including Indigenous protected areas (IPAs) and Guardian programs. Several of the examples put forward of innovative and successful conservation initiatives came from the North, including Tsá Tué, Thaidene Nene, and the Dehcho Land Use Plan.

Presenter after presenter, including the federal and provincial environment ministers, noted that conservation and parks management going forward must include the expertise and opinions of Indigenous nations, though few explicitly connected this new way of working to the practices of exclusion and dispossession that have historically characterized parks administration in this country. The Honourable Catharine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks, voiced her support for IPAs and Indigenous Guardian programs (A few weeks after the conference, the Liberal Government committed 25 million over 5 years to the development of a National Indigenous Guardians Network). Alberta’s Minister for the Environment, Shannon Phillips, publicly declared her government’s support for Indigenous co-management of new Alberta parks and protected areas (she also hinted at creating new management regimes at existing parks that would involve local Indigenous communities).

Such initiatives are vital not only for the health of the land, but also for repairing the broken relationship between Indigenous nations and Canada. As Valerie Courtois, Executive Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, so eloquently captures, “Greater respect for Indigenous-led conservation will benefit all of us. It will help Canada meet pressing biodiversity and carbon targets. It will help Indigenous Nations express our right to determine our future as Peoples and the future of our lands. And it will help everyone gain cleaner water, healthier forests and a more stable climate.” “True reconciliation,” Valerie argues, “begins on the land.”

Landscape Conservation

Historically, protected areas in Canada have been established to conserve small pockets of an eco-system. The result has been a disconnected patchwork of parks and protected areas across the country. In the face of large-scale changes such as climate change, habitat fragmentation is a threat to the sustainability of both individual species and ecosystems more broadly.

Large landscape/seascape conservation sees people and organizations working across geographies and political boundaries to preserve large swaths of natural and cultural heritage. The emphasis is on connecting healthy ecosystems, whether the land in question is public or private, wild or developed. Collaborative governance that meaningfully engages a diversity of stakeholders, including private land owners, is key to the success of landscape scale conservation.

Promising examples of landscape conservation include: the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s “Moose Sex Project,” which is concerned with protecting the Isthmus of Chignecto—a land bridge connecting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—with the aim of restoring the endangered moose population in mainland Nova Scotia; and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which is committed to the collaborative management of 1.3 million square kilometres spanning the Canada-US border to enable the movement of wide-ranging species like bears, caribou, and wolves, and sustain the human communities that occupy this region.


Both Indigenous co-management and landscape scale conservation depend on collaboration, a third theme of the conference. Collaboration also emerged in presentations on more modest projects. Take for example Mood Walks, an initiative of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association in partnership with Hike Ontario and Conservation Ontario, that provides training and support for local mental health organizations to lead educational walking programs in their communities. Not only did Mood Walks grow out of a partnership between three provincial organizations, but the success of individual programs often depends on collaboration between local organizations with very different mandates, such as social service agencies, hiking clubs, parks and conservation areas, schools, businesses, and community organizations. While collaboration at any scale has its challenges, as the conference made clear, done well, it also has its rewards. Not to mention, it is vital to successful, respectful work across scales, jurisdictions, organizational boundaries, and cultures.

Parks for All

The fourth theme that surface during the 2017 Canadian Parks Conference was “parks for all.” (It is no coincidence that this is also the title of a strategic framework document in process by the Canadian Parks Council and the Canadian Parks and Recreation Council for the future of parks in Canada. And speaking of collaboration, the document has been developed in consultation with many of the individuals and agencies represented at the conference, as well as the broader public.)

The idea of parks for all implicitly acknowledges how parks have been spaces of exclusion, privileging certain kinds of people, movement, and activity over others, most notably with respect to Indigenous communities. It champions a park system that is accessible to all Canadians, including the continent’s original inhabitants, people living in urban centres, immigrants, and folks with lower incomes. Parks for all also recognizes parks and protected areas as ecological spaces, which are vital to protecting biodiversity and enabling climate change adaptation.

Parks, attendees were told by different presenters from scientists to park planners to conservationists to athletes to cabinet ministers to physicians, have important ecological, environmental, economic, health, and recreational benefits. Parks for all acknowledges the interconnectedness of these different outcomes of parks. The challenge going forward is to identify how the people that design, manage, and use parks can work together to meet these related goals.