As you all know by now, I despise rhetoric aimed to deceive rather than inform and enlighten. So last year, as Parks Canada commemorated its 100th birthday with spurious claims of greatness, I decided to borrow PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter™ and turn it on the celebratory messages coming out of Parks Canada’s outsized PR department.
By my crude math, Parks Canada spent at least a million dollars on its jubilee public relations campaign, including advertising, books, films, even a reality TV show. The good news was everywhere. This is “an opportunity to recognize the great Canadians who had the foresight to provide a great gift to future generations and led our nation in building the national dream of having Canada’s nature protected and celebrated,” wrote Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle in the “CEO’s message” accompanying the 2010-11 Parks Canada agency corporate plan. “Parks Canada’s network of national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas has become symbolic of our national identity and is recognized internationally as the greatest among the great.”
Hogwash, I thought. Yes, our national parks are great. But it is despite, rather than because of, Parks Canada’s oversight. If they symbolize anything, it is a tendency for Canadian governments to develop vague plans they never fund or implement and call it good management. And so I started muckraking.
Turns out, things were not as rosy as Parks Canada’s spin doctors might have us believe. Sure, we have many and great national parks, and even Harper’s government has expanded some and created others. But all in all, I found that the peer-reviewed scientific research did not support most of the exaggerated claims gushing from Latourelle’s office. I’m sure Parks Canada wasn’t happy with the results of my independent research, but based on most of the feedback I got from those I respect following the magazine feature I finally wrote, I was on the right track.
There’s “lots of concern in [Parks Canada] about the re-emergence of the dual mandate (if it ever really went away),” emailed one academic in the know on such things. “Even nicer to see a journalist who picked up on an empirically based estimate from the primary literature about ‘how much is enough’ instead of repeating old news about 50 per cent!”
Sometimes things take on a life of their own, and the magazine feature morphed into a gathering of experts on national parks and other so-called protected areas in Calgary this week. They have descended on Big Oil Town for a panel on the status and future of ecological integrity in Canada’s national parks, part of Mount Royal University’s (MRU) wildly successful Under Western Skies 2 Conference, which got underway on October 10.
The parks panel today (October 11) promises to be enlightening, and potentially controversial. According to the conference website, Parks Canada’s “strengthened [ecological integrity] mandate seems itself at risk of becoming a shibboleth. ‘EI’ has disappeared from Parks Canada organization charts; there is less emphasis on ‘greater park ecosystems,’ where a number of important threats to ecological conditions in parks arise; and resources to address questions about the causes and consequences of changes in ecological conditions in and around parks have been reduced.”
Pamela Wright, who was vice-chair of the federal government’s Panel on the Ecological Integrity of Canada’s National Parks, which gave 38 of 39 national parks failing grades, wrote in her abstract that “there has been significant improvement in transforming Parks Canada into a learning culture where evaluation and feedback are welcome and knowledge and expertise are valued,” but that Parks Canada has become “an utterly devastated organization” that may, itself, be an institution that has become impaired for future generations.
John Shultis, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, argues that “park management has once again swung towards neo-liberalism (practised fervently by Stephen Harper) and a focus on use versus preservation.” Although he admits that declining visitation has played a key role in the shift back to use, he suggests that “the rise of neo-liberal ideology has also had significant impacts on the recent shift towards an emphasis on use over preservation in Canadian national parks.”
The University of Calgary’s own Shaun Fluker, professor of law, suggests that the Canada National Parks Act, which states that maintaining and restoring ecological integrity is the “first priority” of parks management, “may be completely flipped on its head when necessary to satisfy the competing interests of ecological protection and human use.”
In an effort to find solutions to some of these defects, Okanagan College’s Rosalind Warner will discuss how to “find a way to incorporate the norm of intrinsic value [rather than just utilitarian value] into permanent governance arrangements in the most effective and direct way.”
Too often, conferences like these are only open to attendees who pay the (usually expensive) registration fees, which means important ideas are left to reverberate in the academic echo chamber. But MRU has opened the national parks panel to the public, which can purchase a ticket for a nominal price to learn more about the fate and future of our precious national parks.
If you care about our national parks, and want to find out what’s been going on in our national parks for the last 12 years, join me at MRU’s Ross Glen Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 11.