Among Indigenous leaders, there is more talk of a day when their people will return to the parks — not to amuse tourists, but to live and work
Banff National Park is celebrated as a Canadian treasure, “home to imposing 3,000-metre peaks, alpine meadows rich with colourful wildflowers, brilliant blue glacier-fed lakes,” as Parks Canada describes it.
What you will not find within Canada’s oldest national park – leaving aside the questionably named Stoney Squaw Mountain — is much trace of the Indigenous people whose ancestors resided and hunted there.
When the park was created in 1887, authorities viewed the Stoney as “stragglers,” best confined to the neighbouring reserves. Park superintendent George Stewart wrote in his first annual report that Indians had to be excluded from the park. “Their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the Park a matter of great concern,” he wrote, as quoted by aboriginal historians Theodore Binnema and Melanie Niemi in a 2006 article.
When the Stoney were invited back in, it was for the annual Banff Indian Days, an event that ran into the 1970s. Tourists were entertained by dancing, drumming, “war whoops” and archery performed by “Chiefs and Braves and squaws in full regalia,” as a 1929 advertisement put it.
This year, national parks are in the spotlight after the federal government offered free admission as a 150th birthday gift to Canadians. More than 14.2 million people have taken advantage of the offer, an increase in attendance of 10 per cent in the first seven months of the year over last year, with some parks and historic sites seeing attendance more than double from last year as people take up Parks Canada’s invitation to “find adventure, fun for the whole family.”
But beneath the feel-good evocation of family camping trips and pristine wilderness, another discussion is taking place about the very nature of Canadian parks and the responsibility of authorities to reconcile with a tarnished past. Among Indigenous leaders, there is more talk of a day when their people will return to the parks — not to amuse tourists, but to live and work.
The Stoney were not alone in being banished from lands they once lived on to clear the way for Canadian parkland. In 1936, members of the Keeseekoowenin Ojibwa band were expelled from a fishing station within the newly created Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. As they left for a reserve outside the park with their belongings on wagons, they saw smoke rising from their houses and barns, set alight by park wardens wanting to ensure the Ojibwa did not return.
Provincial governments had a similar attitude, with Ontario banning all hunting in Algonquin Park, and Quebec doing likewise in the Parc des Laurentides in the late 19th century. Around the same time, First Nations were also removed for the creation of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
In an article published by Walrus in June, Indigenous writer and businessman Robert Jago denounced “a parks system that has robbed and impoverished Indigenous peoples.” He argued that Canadians need to change their concept of wilderness and accept that, 50 years from now, “Algonquin people may again be living in Algonquin Park, and that Stanley Park and the turquoise waters of Moraine Lake in Banff National Park may be dotted with First Nations homes and businesses.”
It’s a striking image, but he is not alone in his view. Steven Nitah, former chief of Lutsel K’e Dene First Nations in the Northwest Territories, is involved in ongoing negotiations to create Thaidene Nene national park at the eastern end of Great Slave Lake. In an interview, Nitah praised the progress in government attitudes toward Indigenous people. Leaving behind a period of what he called disrespect up to the 1970s, he said the recognition of the role Indigenous people can play in the management of protected areas is now “quite good.” But there is more to be done.
“There’s no reason why we can’t take all the national parks and provincial parks that exist across the country and reintroduce Indigenous people into those lands, with their rights recognized, and give them responsibility in the management and operation of those protected areas,” Nitah said.
“That will create employment opportunities, a new story those places can tell. It will be safe space that Canada can use to demonstrate what they mean by reconciliation.”
The mindset of parks managers has changed dramatically from what it was more than a century ago. “In the early years of establishing Canada’s national heritage places, Indigenous peoples were excluded,” Parks Canada said in a written statement. “Parks Canada recognizes that this practice was wrong and, over the past decades, has evolved its approach and now honours Indigenous rights and traditions and includes Indigenous peoples in decision-making.”
In fact, nearly 90 per cent of Canada’s national parks are managed in accordance with treaties or agreement with Indigenous peoples. Areas designated to become national parks, such as Thaidene Nene in the Northwest Territories, are first set aside as national park reserves pending negotiations with Indigenous peoples who have a claim to the land.
In one such reserve, the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Parks Canada staff are working alongside the Coast Salish peoples to re-introduce the traditional practice of building rock walls at the low tide mark to trap sand and create “clam gardens.”
Nathan Cardinal, manager of resource conservation at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, said he discourages the view of parks as pristine or untouched. “All these landscapes were actively managed by First Nations for millennia,” he said. One of his goals is to “change some of the common perception of Indigenous people as people who were hunter-gatherers to people who were effectively resource managers, just as I’m doing today,” he said.
It is not always an easy sell. When Parks Canada adopted the Indigenous practice of a controlled burn last year on a small uninhabited island within the park reserve, aimed at regenerating species of medicinal plants, some nearby residents complained about the smoke and the impact on their view.
The historian Binnema, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, said people initially took exception in 2000 when a B.C. park was closed for an exclusive Indigenous deer hunt, complaining of favouritism. “Canadians should not react in a kneejerk fashion, assuming that governments are simply handing over national parks to Indigenous people to pillage them. That’s just not the case,” he said.
Binnema said that Canadians who bristle at the idea of a human presence in parkland should rethink their concept of wilderness. “Every visitor to a national park in Canada, whether it’s Fundy or Banff or Jasper, when they strike off into the bush on a trail, they are experiencing an environment that is utterly changed from what it was before the national park was created, and utterly different from any environment that existed there in the past,” he said.
“They should know that when national parks were created, certainly any national park created before the 1970s, the approach taken was to remove the hand of humanity in the management of those parks to a degree that was artificial.”
For example, some of what is now forest in Banff National Park was previously grassland, the result of fires Indigenous people set to influence the distribution and abundance of sought-after plants and animals. And far from seeking to preserve an unspoiled landscape, the park’s architects were more than happy to have towns within the boundaries catering to tourists.
Eli Enns, a research fellow at the University of Victoria and member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, said his people’s experience with the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve reveals a vision of the future — and a “tremendous” improvement over the past.
When the reserve was established in 1970, rangers harassed elders collecting medicinal plants and sea life, Enns said. “They would have to throw them on the ground and leave them,” he said. “It was very disrespectful.”
In 2004, Parliament passed legislation to return land from the Pacific Rim and Riding Mountain parks to dispossessed Indigenous peoples. The 86 hectares carved out of the Pacific Rim reserve for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations has become a residential community powered by geothermal energy.
“I think the lesson to Canadians out of that is, the idea of fencing off nature and ‘protecting’ it is a dysfunctional way of understanding ourselves and our relationship to our natural environment,” he said. “In that way, national parks and provincial parks are just as dysfunctional as industrial parks, because it triggers a world view of disconnectedness.”
He has worked in B.C. to establish tribal parks where there is an emphasis on sustainable economic development, such as eco-tourism, small hydro dams and forest products. That, he said, should be the model for Canada’s future national parks.
Yet, amid the fanfare around Canada’s 150th anniversary, Parks Canada did not draw attention to the historic exclusions of Indigenous people from parks. And the government agency has never formally apologized.
John Sandlos, a professor of history at Memorial University, said that was a missed opportunity to shine a light on a past that Canada shares with other countries that have cleared out humans to create parks and wildlife preserves. He draws a distinction between Canada’s newer northern parks, where there is greater Indigenous involvement in the management, and southern parks, where there is still a sense that Indigenous people are excluded.
“These places have been wound up in a sense of Canadian nationalism and identity. They are trotted out as symbols of Canada,” Sandlos said. “Some of them talk about being jewels in the crown of Canada, and yet they have this history that tells about another side of Canada — a history of colonialism and dispossession.”