Rowdy Parks: Towards a More Popular Culture of Nature in Postwar Canada

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This is the 7th in a series of posts written by recipients of NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grants to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.


Histories of Canadian parks often identify the emergence of greater ecological awareness amongst park managers and users as a key development of the 1970s. However, what happened late at night in the campgrounds where most park visitors spent most of their time suggests a vernacular culture of nature that was significantly less “green” and also rougher around the edges than has so far been accounted for. “Rowdyism” was a major concern in Canadian parks during this period, and thanks to a travel grant from NiCHE, I was able to present some of my research on that topic at the 2014 World Conference of Environmental History in Guimarães.

It is rare to find detailed accounts of park rowdyism from someone who was not A) a park official or B) complaining to one. The story that a young Toronto-based screenwriter named Rex Bromfield contributed to the Globe and Mail in August 1977 therefore stands out as a vivid depiction of a night spent next door to hard-partying park-goers. Bromfield described how he and his wife towed their camper trailer to an unidentified Ontario park to begin their summer holidays. Some of the people moving into nearby campsites caught Bromfield’s attention, particularly the noisy party of seven adults and teenagers who set up next door. “One of the men pulled several 24-packs of beer and a tent from the trunk and invited everyone within shouting distance over to their site for a drink,” Bromfield reported. “Some of the neighbours joined them. Others pretended not to hear. Some actually packed up their gear and moved further away.” Bromfield decided to keep close tabs on the new neighbours.

Evidence of Canadians at Toronto's Rouge Park, summer 2014. Source: Ben Bradley
Evidence of Canadians at Toronto’s Rouge Park, summer 2014. Source: Ben Bradley

By nightfall a group of 15 to 20 had gathered in the campsite next door, sitting around a massive campfire. They drank and joked and drank some more, until a few decided to build a second campfire on top of a picnic table. Once they had the fire going, they started carrying the tabletop pyre around the site, which evoked laughter, screams, and a struggle that led to burning logs being spilled all over. That, according to Bromfield, is when a “drunken brawl” erupted.

Punches were thrown. Bottles were smashed. Obscenities were screamed across the darkness of the campground. The Bromfields saw other campers loading their cars and escaping from the park, but were too afraid to step outside. Only after the police arrived and hauled a clutch of combatants away did silence descend over the campground. When the Bromfields woke up later that morning, the only other people around were park staff removing broken glass and charred picnic tables. “It was as though nothing had happened,” Bromfield wrote. “My wife and I talked it over and decided to stay on.”

Beyond its descriptive value, Bromfield’s story is noteworthy for the fact that it ran as a “slice of life” piece – it did not take a moralistic position or a call for strict new policies. But not everyone was so blasé about park rowdyism. By 1977 it was a problem that Canadians from coast to coast were familiar with. Many who had been peeved or frightened to share a beach or campground with young people seemingly gone wild complained to newspapers, politicians, and park agencies. Others voted with their feet. By the mid 1970s many families and seniors avoided camping in public parks, and instead patronized private campgrounds where there were stricter rules. Newspaper stories and letters to the editor referred to these harassed, displaced nature lovers as “the silent majority,” using a popular and seemingly apt phrase of the Nixon years.

In response to public complaints about rowdyism, park agencies instituted an array of new regulations and management practices during the 1970s and early 1980s. Campsite fees were introduced in every provincial park system (although not for all parks). Staffing levels were increased and late-night patrols introduced. In 1971 the Ontario Provincial Police had full-time summer detachments in five parks, and RCMP officers were stationed in several Saskatchewan parks. Special action was required in some cases. For example, motorcycles were banned from Ontario’s Pinery Provincial Park in 1972, nominally in order to protect its sensitive sand dune ecology, but really to rid it of the biker gangs who took over its campgrounds every summer.

During the early 1980s park staff were given greater power to ticket and evict visitors they deemed troublesome. Newspapers and park records indicate that rowdy park-goers became more confrontational with staff, police, and other campers in the same period. Several park agencies offered self-defence courses for their staff; Nova Scotia considered giving its wardens dogs and guns to maintain order. One regional conservation authority in Ontario faced a human rights complaint for banning teens and young adults from booking its campsites. Publicity campaigns sought to instill “good” behaviour amongst park users: Saskatchewan implored them to “enjoy the wildlife, don’t be the wildlife.”

Ultimately, the alcohol bans implemented during the late 1970s and early 1980s proved the most successful strategy for combating park rowdyism. Ontario introduced the first ban in 1978, and typically targeted specific parks from the May “Two-Four” weekend until Canada Day. Surveys indicated that large majorities of park users supported the alcohol bans, including many who admitted to enjoying a drink or two in their campsites. Eviction rates rose steadily through late 1970s, then sharply in the early 1980s before reaching a plateau and going into gradual decline.

Rowydism never disappeared from Canadian parks, however, and remains a not-unexpected feature of the popular park experience. Certain parks have reputations as party spots to be avoided – or sought out – at certain times of the year, depending on the type of wildness one desires in the Great Outdoors. It even gets a nod of recognition in “hoser nostalgia” movies and TV shows such as Trailer Park Boys and Fubar. The persistence of rowdyism in Canadian parks suggests that historians of parks would do well to shift their focus towards park users and their quotidian practices, both “good” and “bad.” Doing so is bound to help provide a fuller picture of postwar Canada’s popular or vernacular culture of nature.

Feature Photograph: “Isn’t it nice to get away from it all?” Edmonton Journal, 20 August 1970. Courtesy of Edd Uluschak and Simon Fraser University Editorial Cartoon collection.

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I'm a historian of cultural, natural, and built landscapes in twentieth-century Canada. One of my current book projects is about the popular culture of nature in postwar Canada, looking at the history of rowdyism and 'bad behaviour' in Canadian parks from 1965 to 1985, or from hippies to headbangers.


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