Prince Albert National Park, Source: Wikipedia

‘A Case of Special Privilege and Fancied Right’: The Shack Tent Controversy in Prince Albert National Park

Prince Albert National Park, Source: Wikipedia
Prince Albert National Park

Prince Albert National Park

[This is the first post for Nature’s Chroniclers, a group blog written by NiCHE members about the field of Environmental History & Historical Geography in Canada: http://niche-canada.org/NaturesChroniclers This is also the first in a series of posts on the history of Parks Canada from the authors of the forthcoming book: A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011]

In 1970, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, then serving as Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in 1970, met face-to-face with representatives of the Waskesiu Tent Cabin and Portable Cabin Association in an effort to defuse a growing local protest over a development plan to eliminate these semi-permanent structures from the Prince Albert National Park [PANP] townsite campground. But instead of holding to the federal plan that had been a decade in the making, Chrétien offered to review the attrition policy in light of the local situation. Parks Canada never regained the initiative.

This debate over the existence of shack tents and portable cabins in Saskatchewan’s first national park might seem puzzling, if not confusing, in that most Canadians readily assume that national parks exist for the benefit and pleasure of all visitors, not just a select few. But private cottages have always been one of the defining features of the Waskesiu townsite. Indeed, Canada’s national parks have struggled for the better part of their existence with a dual identity as both nature preserves and recreational playgrounds . This double purpose, a common theme in Canadian national park literature,1i has often pushed and pulled national parks in two different directions.[1] One author has even claimed that the two-sided mandate has been “the constant, unresolved problem at the heart of park history.”[2] But for the generations of people who made Waskesiu their summer home, there was no such “unresolved problem.” With many of the same visitors returning season after season, a strong sense of community developed, especially among the shack tenters who came to identify their interests and desires with those of the park. This attitude not only applied to summer campground policy, but also to what actually went on in the larger townsite–to the point where recreational interests triumphed over any sense of ecological integrity. Any attempt by Ottawa to challenge this situation was regarded as gross interference by a distant bureaucracy which, in the words of one long-time park resident, “did not appreciate the needs or wishes of the people who use the park the most.”[3]

“‘A Case of Special Privilege and Fancied Right’: The Shack Tent Controversy in Prince Albert National Park” examines the bitter struggle between ‘shack tent’ cottagers in Prince Albert National Park and the Canadian Parks Service over repeated attempts to first limit and then eliminate these semi-permanent structures from the townsite [Waskesiu] campground. The story highlights how the Prince Albert region looked upon the park as a regional playground and resented any federal meddling, including the application of national park standards. It also raises important questions about the purpose of Canada’s national parks and whether one group of citizens should enjoy special proprietary rights in a place set aside for all Canadians to enjoy.

[1] See, for example, L. Bella, Parks for Profit (Montreal 1987), and most recently, P. Kopas, Taking the Air: Ideas and Change in Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver 2007).
[2] A. MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada (Montreal and Kingston 2001), 15. MacEachern calls this double purpose, “preservation and use,” and suggests that it is more useful to look at both aspects in terms of “intervention.” (156)
[3] Quoted in Prince Albert Daily Herald, 2 July 1971, 3.

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