This year millions are expected to take advantage of Parks Canada's new Discovery Pass, which offers free entrance to the dozens of national parks and historic sites that dot our native land.
The program is a way for Canadians to ring in the 150th anniversary of Confederation and experience the rich history and rugged beauty of the country's most cherished natural assets. But it also speaks to a broader strategy, one borne out of economic necessity, that conservationists believe is putting Parks Canada at odds with its primary mandate.
"The national park system is under severe threat," said Dr. Faisal Moola, University of Toronto professor and the David Suzuki Foundation's director general for Ontario and northern Canada. "The system has never recovered from brutal budget cuts brought in by the previous federal government under Stephen Harper, which had an enormous impact on the operations of Parks Canada, particularly on the ecological integrity side."
Those cuts — which led to a 31-per-cent scale-back of Parks Canada's conservation work— helped drive "an urgency for revenue generation" that has led to a greater emphasis on tourism and commercial development, said Alison Woodley, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's national director for parks programs. "(It's) undermining Parks Canada's legislative mandate, and in the long term will put these places at greater risk."
Woodley believes the shift in focus at the federal agency began nearly a decade ago when visitation to Canada's parks started to drop off in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
"There was an assumption made at that point that people weren't coming to our national parks because they weren't interested or because our parks weren't relevant to Canadians," she explained. "So there was this story that emerged that we needed to provide more tourist attractions in our parks because people weren't coming, but that was a misinterpretation of the issue."
In looking over the data, Woodley said declining visitor numbers, historically, have had less to do with parks' waning appeal than the broader forces at play: security concerns following the 9/11 attacks, global financial stability and unfavourable exchange rates.
But that narrative, cemented further by a Harper administration that actively promoted the industrialization of our national parks, persists to some extent.
In Banff, Alta., there is a proposal to significantly expand the Lake Louise ski area that would remove protected wilderness areas from Canada's first national park and effectively double the resort's capacity. The decision paving the way for the expansion — which has been opposed by 11 former Parks Canada managers — won't be revisited, according to agency head Daniel Watson, speaking at a forum in Banff last year*. His comments came days after Parks Canada backed out of its involvement in the construction of a 24-metre-tall war memorial in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Meanwhile, there is also a proposal in place for a $66-million bike path that would cut through protected grizzly bear and caribou habitat in Jasper National Park.
"We've got to stop this because (these parks) can't sustain endless development," Woodley said. "We don't want to be the last generation of Canadians who can see grizzly bears in Banff, or caribou in Jasper."
Beyond preserving biodiversity within Canada's parks, Moola said Ottawa must also consider the sensitive landscapes surrounding them.
"We can't think of our parks as being static," he said. "You shouldn't have a situation like Pacific Rim National Park, where you have this tiny little park on the edge of Vancouver Island and all around it there's active development that's happening: mining, logging and other types of activities. So we need to think about the surrounding watershed in which these national parks are found so we can protect the integrity of the parks themselves."
In an email provided to Pique in lieu of an interview — identical to a statement that ran in a July CBC article — Parks Canada said it is "committed to preserving our national parks, expanding the system of protected places and contributing to the recovery of species at risk. At the same time, we must continue to develop new and innovative programs and services to enable more Canadians, including youth and newcomers, to experience the outdoors and learn about our environment."
The federal government recently completed a series of public roundtables that asked Canadians for their views on the presentation and conservation of national parks. Environment minister Catherine McKenna is expected to publish her response within five months.
*A previous version of this article noted Parks Canada head Daniel Watson spoke about the Lake Louise ski area expansion at a forum in Banff last week, when, in fact, the forum was held in February 2016. Pique regrets the error.