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The History Behind Canada's National Parks


Posted by on Thursday, January 20, 2011



Banff from Tunnel Mountain, Banff National Park, AB, 1929. Photo: William Oliver

Last year marked the 125th anniversary of Banff, Canada’s first national park, and 2011 happens to be the centennial of Canada’s National Park service. These anniversaries have occasioned some celebrations, including a new book showcasing Canada’s national parks in all their majesty. However, we ought not to forget to take a critical look at parks too.

To start, we might ask ourselves why these anniversaries are taking place now: why was 2010 the 125th anniversary of our first national park and not, say the 225th anniversary? Why is it the 100th anniversary of the national parks service and not the 200th?  These questions may seem silly, but the answers to them probably are not what you would expect. Contrary to popular belief, the reason parks to preserve wilderness started to be established in Canada (and elsewhere) toward the end of the 19th century was not because humans suddenly wised up to the importance of preserving nature or some new found romanticism.

Human perspectives toward wilderness and nature have been as varied throughout recorded history as they are today. At any period, there have been those who have looked to nature and wildlife with awe and reverence, and sought to leave sites of natural beauty untouched. Take for example some of Western Civilization’s oldest literature, the Homeric hymns of Ancient Greece:
    “firs or towering oaks grow upon the fruitful earth
    beautiful, flourishing on the lofty mountains.
    They stand high, and people call them
    sacred groves of the immortals,
    and mortals do not cut them down at all with an axe.”
On the other hand, there have always been those who seem immune to nature’s charms, and display no interest in preserving wild landscapes. Keeping our 2,700-year-old poem in mind, our urge to preserve nature is as old as civilization. But this brings us back to our question: if the desire to preserve wilderness and nature is an ancient one, why is Canada’s first national park barely more than a century old? (And just to clear things up, it’s not because of the timing of Confederation, since we inherited many institutions from colonial authorities, such as universities that predate 1867.)

Rather, the short answer is that it was only at that time that the wilderness started to rapidly disappear. For tens of thousands of years, human beings were spread quite sparsely over the earth, never numbering much more than a few hundred million. That all changed with the Industrial Revolution. The human population suddenly started to multiply at an unprecedented rate, hitting one billion by the start of the nineteenth century. Though it took over 100,000 years for humans to reach our first billion, it required only another hundred years for the human population to double to two billion. By that point in the late nineteenth century, the phenomenal growth by humans had devoured a lot of what had been wild land and pushed other species to extinction.

The first parks were established out of the knowledge that if steps were not taken soon, just about everywhere on earth would be exploited by a fast-growing human population. Indeed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the literary mind behind Sherlock Holmes, after visiting Banff National Park, noted this logic. “When Canada has filled up and carried a large population,” wrote Doyle, “she will bless the foresight of the administrators who took possession of broad tracts of the most picturesque land and put them for ever out of the power of the speculative dealer.” The reasoning is simple: more humans, less wilderness. Thus, ironically, as wilderness itself becomes scarcer, parks become more common.

Seen in this light, the sudden acceleration in the creation of parks in Canada and elsewhere over the last several decades is as much a cause for alarm as celebration. Sure, we are nominally “preserving” more land than ever before, but we’re using more land than ever before! And in order to address that problem we are going to have to look at root causes. As the American-based Centre for Biological Diversity puts it succinctly, “the root cause of all environmental problems is human overpopulation.” Amen. Now let’s hope the 21st century has a better solution to that problem than the 20th, as creating more parks alone isn’t going to work.




  Comments (10)

Well written and thought-provoking! Great article.

Submitted by Caroline on Thursday, January 20, 2011

I have to agree with Mr. Shoalts sentiment. The challenges that we face as a Canadian society cannot simply be solved by protecting more land. We must consider the consequences of our actions as a global society. A systematic review of the way humans conduct themselves is necessary to ensure the survival of the generations to come.

Submitted by PacificPacifist on Friday, January 21, 2011

Amazing story, well done!

Submitted by J. Weaver on Friday, January 21, 2011

Looking forwrd to more thought provoking articles by Mr.Shoalts. We must take the knowledge earned by our past mistakes to ensure the future.

Submitted by Dianna Moore on Friday, January 21, 2011

The "amazing" growth of 30% in the national park system of Canada is truly not that impressive. The truth is that to this day Canada has set aside only 5% of its total land mass as a national park. Costa Rica, for example, has 12,5%... Even in these 5% that Canada has declared a national park, the conservation thought is often put on the backseat. Nowhere is this truer than in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, also a UNESCO world heritage site. What nobody seems to want to talk about is the fact that these parks represent rather a sinkhole than a stronghold for wildlife such as for wolves, grizzly bears or moose. Since 1980, roads and railways have killed at least 9,800 animals the size of a coyote or larger in Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper national parks. And these are only the confirmed deaths. The true number is certainly much higher. Admittedly, the TCH (Trans-Canada Highway) running through Banff National Park is fenced and wildlife highway-crossing structures are in place. But the problems are not solved, not by a long shot. Between 2002 and 2010, roads were the main cause of the total collapse of the local Banff/Bow Valley wolf pack. Many of the pack members died on fenced-in sections of the TCH! (For a detailed chronicle of the fate of the Bow Valley wolf family, and a detailed look behind the scenes in the most iconic national parks of Canada see a book called The Will of the Land, published by Rocky Mountain books!

Submitted by Peter Dettling on Tuesday, February 01, 2011

the USA claims they have had a National park since 1872, How old is ours, really even if we changed from being the Dominion of Canada to Canada, and finally got our own flag later on????

Are we the oldest "National" park" system in the world??

Submitted by Murray Crawford on Thursday, May 19, 2011

Banff National Park was the first one in Canada (1885) and it was created not with any intent of 'preserving the wilderness' but to exploit it!

The Banff preserve was set up so that the government could create a spa at the hot springs to attract wealthy tourists, in keeping with the European tradition of 'taking the waters' at places like Baden-Baden.

Canada was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy at the time from the costs incurred by building the trans-Canada railway, and it was hoped that the money that could be made from the Banff hot springs would help pay the bills.

The public supported the plan at the time because of wide-ranging disgust at speculators who had bought up all the scenic vistas at Niagara Falls to sell them to the tourists. The same reaction didn't happen, though, with Brewster's present plan to close off one of the viewpoints along the Icefields Parkway.

The idea of preserving the wilderness for Canadians, then and in the future, came from the first Superintendent of the parks, James Hector, but it was certainly neither official government policy nor accepted by the public.

In fact, Jasper was created to preserve the headwaters and forests of the Athabasca system for future logging and development! And in the United States. Teddy Roosevelt's expansions of the American park system was motivated by his desire to protect natural areas for big game hunters like himself!

As lovely as Sir Arthur's sentiments were, and contrary to popular belief, they had no bearing at all on the creation of Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks.

Submitted by Peter McClure on Wednesday, July 04, 2012

I am really enjoying reading your well written articles.Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work.

Thanks,
http://www.waterton.ca/

Submitted by isaacoomber on Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Many of these parks were created by the forceful removal of First Nations people...something nobody ever mentions.

Submitted by Gary on Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Just to remind anyone who still might read this, Banff was not Canada's first national park. Technically there were five created in the mid 1870's in the Thousand Islands, they are not part of St. Lawrence islands National Park. They were created by an Order in Council. the original document has been lost but the Order is referred to in the Kingston Whig Standard and there are surviving letter so the the lighthouse keepers empowering them to enforce no cutting bands on the islands. They were also issued with "paper badges" for enforcement purposes ...

Submitted by Keith on Thursday, April 11, 2013

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