A history and analysis of Canada’s National Parks

Notoriously beautiful and accessible at the turn of an engine, Canada’s National Parks are a hot spot for culture, tourism, adventure, and conservation. How can one place fulfill so many roles for so many people? From the founding of the National Parks in the 80s, to Indigenous sovereignty, international tourism, trail construction, and conservation efforts, these lands are full of meaning.

Take a read to learn more about the history of the National Parks and their relation to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.

Lake Louise. CC.

Canada’s National Parks: A Chretien Legacy 🇨🇦

By Janaya

Before Jean Chretien’s reign as a cabinet minister in charge of Canada’s national parks, there were only 20 national parks in existence, and no prominent system in place. The vision was to have all natural heritage protected and treated alike across the board, and to give Canadians and visitors alike a new, rich experience. To aid in the cultivation of a collection of parks that represent all of Canada’s natural beauty in all of its forms, Chretien made it a goal to form at least 20-40 more national parks on top of the already existing parks. This was only possible through his National Parks System Plan.

Jean Chretien

Since the plan was originally conducted in the 1980s, the Government of Canada has finished over 60% of what they have planned. The idea was to bring awareness of our country’s beautiful natural sights, which would further gratify Canada’s international image. The organization of the National Parks, although somewhat influenced by the United States, sets us apart from other countries, especially with the exceptional wide variety of environmental beauty that Canada has to offer. The process of identifying the specific areas that become national parks and developing the public areas is complicated; however, when they actually develop the parks, education and biodiversity that can be experienced by visitors is unlike any other.

Although the plan is fully developed, there is still just under 40% of the plan that needs to be brought to life. It will be interesting to experience the opening of the brand new national parks, and further experiencing all of what Canada has to offer!

Indigenous Sovereignty and National Parks ⛰️

By Emily

Although we might take advantage of the beautiful national parks we have available to us, it’s important to realize that these spaces were not always as inclusive as they are today. When Banff National Park was founded in 1887, the Stoney people who hunted and lived in these mountains were viewed as a nuisance and legislation was written to ban First Nations people from entering. Towns were established within the National Parks to further increase tourism, meanwhile Indigenous people were banned from living on the land they had occupied for thousands of years.

Members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations at the Banff Indian Grounds.
Image from: https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-shady-past-of-parks-canada-forced-out-indigenous-people-are-forging-a-comeback

The first Park Superintendent, George Stewart, wrote in regards to this matter,

“Their [the Stoney’s] destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the Park a matter of great concern…”. 

In stark contrast to these exclusionary legislations, surveyors and explorers in the late 1800s heavily relied on the Stoney people’s knowledge of the land and many of the landforms in Banff park are still known by their Stoney names.The Stoney people were only allowed back in the park in the 1970s as a tourist attraction for the annual ‘Banff Indian Days,’ where spectators could ogle them as they danced and performed archery in traditional regalia, as if they were some exotic spectacle of yesteryears. Even today, commercial tourism infrastructure continues to threaten treaty rights and land rights in the name of ‘development’.

Balancing Conservation and Tourism 🐺

By Katherin

Many have visited some of Canada’s national parks, such as Banff and Jasper. These places are well-known for their picturesque landscape and diverse wildlife. It provides a perfect escape from the busy city life and is perfect for tourists to come and enjoy the Canada’s natural wonders. Every year, millions of people would come and visit these places. Though this can boost Canada’s economy, it can negatively impact the nature and wildlife.

In this ten-minute video created by John E. Marriott, he discusses the consequences of mass tourism and development in Banff National Park in 2017. He shows the increase in tourists over the years, but also a decrease in conservation staff and resources in the park- even though the Canada National Parks Act states that nature conservation should be Parks Canada’s top priority.

Though there has been some steps towards conservation such as increased funding, Marriott concludes that the federal government should create an action plan in order to maintain and improve the beauty of Canada’s national parks. However, it is also a visitor’s responsibility to ensure that their actions won’t harm any wildlife in the park. We need to make sure that these places are safe for people and wildlife now and for future generations. 

How National Parks Can Increase Awareness of Nature and Conservation 🌲

By Mary

Despite their colonial beginnings, National Parks can be instrumental to environmental awareness when approached correctly. Geared towards tourism and conservation alike, these spaces can educate people of all backgrounds on caring for nature. In order to do this, parks must be accessible and inclusive. Parks Canada has taken some steps to increase tourist awareness by making parks more affordable to certain groups and providing outdoor education.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper.

Many folks may be unaware of the beautiful scenery awaiting them in the outdoors, and National Parks are often safe spaces to discover this. By seeing preserved ecological areas, it is easier to appreciate why they need protection. Parks Canada has recently aimed to make their spaces more accessible through free admission to youth and new Canadian citizens. Although these steps are just a beginning, they increase affordability to families and relative newcomers to Canada, opening National Parks to a wider demographic.

When it comes to awareness, education is just as important as affordability. If tourists are unfamiliar with the outdoors, they are less likely to visit. Parks Canada offers several “Learn-to Camp” programs which include day-time workshops and overnight stays. When people are approaching camping for the first time, these workshops are good places to start. Knowledge of best practices in the outdoors is also an excellent way of ensuring that one’s visit is most mindful of the surrounding plants, animals, and people. 

The Impact of Trails and Machinery in Parks 🏗️

By Sajal

We all love parks, especially national and provincial ones. When we think about parks, we often think about walking along the trails, or the scenic drives that we take to reach our destination. The issue of accessibility and trail building in parks is often pushed to the background and not given much thought about. Heavy machinery, such as bulldozers are brought in to parks to build more and more roads and trails in an effort to make the parks more accessible to people. This results in more parts of parks such as trees and flowers being cut away to make room for people to walk, which defeats the whole purpose of parks.

Image from WWF.

Parks are meant to be places where people can enjoy the beauty of nature, however making artificial trails and paths defeats the whole purpose. It is another example of how humans interfere with nature while claiming to enjoy it at the same time. 

Conservation Efforts in National Parks 🐻

By Ethan

National Parks are all about allowing people to experience nature, so it makes sense, then, that they are very concerned about conservation. Within the national parks there is an immense amount of science going on that often goes unnoticed by the general population. Parks Canada monitors everything from lichens to bison in order to maintain or improve the ecosystems in which the national parks are established. The aim of the Parks is to maintain “ecological integrity”, which essentially means keeping the park as it was before human impacts. This means maintaining the biotic populations as well as the processes like fire and floods. Achieving this “ecological integrity” is a balancing act between attempting to attract visitors and maintaining a healthy environment.

A prime example of this is seen driving along the highway in Banff National Park. Wildlife bridges are a result of teamwork between engineers and biologists to attempt to find that perfect balance. These fence and bridge combinations allow humans to travel and experience the park safely while simultaneously maintaining historical territories for animals.

Another example from Banff of maintaining ecological integrity is prescribed fires. Fire is an essential part of the ecosystem in the boreal forest. Many coniferous trees, like Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) and Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia), are dependent upon fire to reproduce, and will not release their seeds without sufficient heat. Fire also gets rid of leaf litter which releases otherwise unavailable nutrients. When these nutrients are released it helps to grow more plants, which feeds more herbivores after the fire. Parks Canada prescribes these burns in an attempt to mimic the natural cycles of the ecosystem. These cycles have been shifted recently both by direct human activity, and through the effects of climate change. Alberta got an immense amount of rain this summer (likely as a result of our changing climate), and this rain suppresses the natural fires that would be rejuvenating the landscape.

A carbon map of Wood Buffalo National Park. Image from: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/nature/science/climat-climate/atlas

Scientists with Parks Canada also do a great deal of research into human effects on these fragile ecosystems. A lot of this research in recent years has been directed towards climate change, and the role that protected areas play in it. Parks Canada has developed a “Carbon Atlas”  that provides a visual representation of what areas are carbon sinks and what areas are carbon sources. The research team behind the atlas found that undisturbed parks act as net carbon sinks, whereas parks like Waterton Lakes, where there was a major wildfire, were carbon positive. Carbon sinks are areas that sequester carbon from the atmosphere, like areas with a high density of vegetation that convert CO₂ into Oxygen. The scary part is, these scientists have begun to see a decrease in the size of carbon sinks due to insect infestation and increases in fire intensity, which are both linked to higher temperatures. National Parks are vital for the country to retain biodiversity and relatively untouched wilderness, but in order for us to experience them, a great deal of conservation work goes in. 

Have you visited any National Parks? How do you understand sustainability and conservation efforts? Let us know in the comments.

By Janaya, Emily, Katherin, Mary, Sajal, Ethan, and Freya
Blog Team Community Hour


  1. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-shady-past-of-parks-canada-forced-out-indigenous-people-are-forging-a-comeback
  2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3985800
  3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0308518X16640530
  4. https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/voyage-travel/admission
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/wildlife-overpasses-underpasses-make-animals-people-safer/
  6. https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/nature/science/climat-climate/atlas
  7. http://parkscanadahistory.com/publications/system-plan-eng-1.pdf
  8. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/national-parks-of-canada

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