When Canada created its national parks system beginning in 1885, it forced out Indigenous peoples in the name of conservation and tourism.
Now some Indigenous leaders see the same parks they were excluded from—visited by more than 14 million people in 2015/16—as places where reconciliation can take root.
This was evident at the Canadian Parks Conference this week in Banff, Alberta, where Indigenous delegates, public servants, and conservationists converged amid the soaring mountain peaks and snowy spruce trees that make this national park famous. The effort coincides with the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, and Parks Canada has waived the entry fee to its parks through 2017, so anyone can go for free.
Canada formally apologized in 2008 for the residential school system that removed Indigenous children from their families and communities for well over a century. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought further awareness to this dark history.
But Canada still has a long way to go, as evidenced by Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak's recent comments about residential schools being "well-intentioned" places of "good deeds," prompting widespread condemnation from Indigenous communities and others.
The assimilationist policy that birthed residential schools lives on, said Steven Nitah, a conference organizer and former chief of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories.
"The policy permeates all departments throughout the government apparatus. Just because the government made a decision and apologized, doesn't mean it's gone away."
Nitah and others view Canada's parks system as a place where a broken relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians can begin healing. "Reconciliation is only possible when we're on equal footing," said Chloe Dragon Smith, a Chipewyan-European-Métis session leader from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, who works with the Canadian Parks Council. "The land is a great equalizer."
Delegates were buoyed by the formation of newer parks in partnership with Indigenous communities—such as Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia and Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador—and say they are seeking to build on these successes.
"We believe true reconciliation happens on the land," said Valérie Courtois, director of the nonprofit Indigenous Leadership Initiative. Her group supports what are known as guardians programs, in which Indigenous communities across Canada monitor and manage ancestral lands, a model inspired by a similar program in Australia.
"Guardians programs are moccasins and mukluks on the land," said Courtois. "It is the very expression of our cultural responsibility to that land as a people."
Canada has approximately 30 Indigenous-led guardians programs, and Courtois said more than double that number could be up-and-running.
But for that to happen, the effort needs federal funding, said Courtois.
In addition to reconnecting Indigenous youth with their culture and land, such programs can also help Canada meet its conservation goals.
Some of the existing guardians programs began through parks processes, said Courtois. "There's a particular opportunity with Parks Canada—because it is a land management organization, because it is about conservation and preserving the relationships and values that are contained within these areas."
Nitah, a friendly man with a wry smile, helped negotiate one of the most celebrated successes of recent years, a park-in-progress at the Eastern end of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. Called Thaidene Nene—translated as "land of the ancestors"—the new park will be co-managed by the Lutsel K'e, Parks Canada and the territorial government.
"Canada should learn from Thaidene Nene, and see if they can apply that type of relationship on all existing national parks," said Nitah.
The irony of these conversations taking place in Banff—the birthplace of Canada's colonialist national parks system—was not lost on participants.
"It's been a pretty bleak history in terms of relationship with Indigenous people," said Rob Prosper, Parks Canada vice-president of protected areas and conservation. "When our first national parks were established, almost job number one was to remove Indigenous people. We've obviously moved past that to a point where arguably we are an agency that builds some of the strongest relationships with Indigenous people."
Prosper pointed to the recent reintroduction of bison in Banff National Park, done in collaboration with local First Nations, as an example of progress in more established parks. "We're listening to them," he said.
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Conference organizers are hoping to create a set of recommendations for environment ministers and governments across the country, based on the Banff discussions.
Dragon Smith, who is 27, feels hopeful about the conversations that are underway—and credited leaders like Nitah for laying the groundwork by working on reconciliation long before it was on the minds of non-Indigenous Canadians.
"They've pried open the door," said Dragon Smith, "and the new generation is starting to walk through. I feel very grateful."
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