This post is part of an ongoing series called “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History.” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.
There is a tendency in the general public, government, and mainstream environmental organizations “to speak of parks as unqualified good things,” or “as the best possible use[s] of land.”1 These stories that society tells, which fail to critically assess parks as colonial and capitalist institutions, are what I refer to as “park mythology.” This mythology is largely perpetuated by individuals and organizations that, due to their status in society, have not directly experienced the dispossessive and exclusionary effects of parks and park creation.
Further, this park mythology is connected to broader discussions of racism and racial justice due to the overwhelming whiteness of the governments that manage these parks and the environmental organizations that campaign for their protection.2 Park mythology is a creation of white privilege and white denial.3 By denying the complicated reality of parks, white settler governments and environmental organizations have created a park mythos that privileges their viewpoints, power structures, and profits.
By denying the complicated reality of parks, white settler governments and environmental organizations have created a park mythos that privileges their viewpoints, power structures, and profits.
The racial dimension of park mythology is still underexplored. In this post I will look at one example, the use of the phrase “parks are not for profit” in Alberta and Manitoba in 2020, challenge its accuracy, and provide several historical angles that enable us to move forward with a more accurate understanding of the topic of parks and profit. If we are asking ‘Whose Nature?‘ in regard to Canadian national and provincial parks, then we have to also ask ‘Whose Profit?‘
Last March I responded to the Alberta government’s publicly maligned ‘park optimization’ plan proposal, which proposed the closure of twenty parks and the possible delisting of 164 other parks slated for third-party management. I highlighted some instances of the province’s checkered park management past, calling on Albertans and other Canadians to think of Alberta’s provincial parks, and parks more generally, as colonial institutions that deserve a critical lens.
In December 2020, the United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta backed away from this proposal, making it, according to some media agencies, one of the party’s first major political defeats. Conservation groups, namely the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), declared victory, despite the UCP still aiming for park co-management partnerships. The current UCP plan for the future of Alberta’s park plan is still unclear.
Rather than analyzing the current atmosphere of park management in Alberta and hypothesizing, this post is going to look back at one of the strategies that the CPAWS chapters in Alberta used during their campaign against the park optimization plan in 2020 and critically assess this strategy’s connection to broader histories of race and racial justice.
Twelve Truths and Two Lies
In 2020, CPAWS Southern Alberta and Northern Alberta released “Thirteen Truths and a Lie” in response to the UCP park optimization plan. The 9th truth that CPAWS listed was that “parks are not for profit.” This talking point was also picked up by CPAWS Manitoba in their “Parks Over Profit: Defend Manitoba Parks” campaign.
As a historian of provincial parks, this point made me bristle. Not only is it inherently false, but it also purposefully oversimplifies park profit to drive home a misleading point that is more convenient for conservation and park activists than the fact that parks were created for profit and continue to be managed to create profit. Parks are colonial institutions. As I stated in March, “parks reside on occupied land. The boundaries of a park are created by settler governments in order to control and economically benefit from the activities that take place within them.”4
When we state that parks are ‘not for profit,’ we enable governments and companies to use preservation as a cover for their profits. When CPAWS and other conservation groups ignore the profit gained by settler governments and the majority white businesses and property owners at the expense of racialized and oppressed groups, they, often unwittingly, perpetuate colonialism and racial discrimination while trying to “do good.”
Parks for Profit
In her aptly named 1987 work, Parks for Profit, Leslie Bella argued that pure preservation is not feasible. All parks must balance profit and profitability with preservation. “Rather than ensuring that these areas remain untouched,” Bella showed that “the formation of parks guaranteed that these areas would become centers of development.”5
“Most of Canada’s national parks were created as another form of natural resource exploitation. Canada’s scenery is itself a resource, but one that cannot be exported. If scenery cannot be exported, then the resource can only be profitably exploited if tourists are imported.”Leslie Bella, Parks for Profit (Montreal: Harvest House, 1987): ix.
In the decades that have followed Bella’s findings, environmental historians and other scholars have echoed Bella and further fleshed out our understanding of parks as instruments of capitalist financial gain and colonial control (SEE SUGGESTED READING LIST). Although some of these works deal with race, many do not do so in an explicit way. The foregrounding of racial justice thought provides new angles of looking at the profitability of parks. Here are three topics relating to park profit that I have found myself rethinking and reframing in the past year:
1. The Profitability of Dispossession and Exclusion
The creation of national and provincial parks in Canada led to the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from the land. This dispossession, in addition to asserting control over Indigenous peoples, enabled profit on the part of settler governments and businesspeople. In Banff National Park, for instance, Ted Binnema and Melanie Niemi show that the Stoney Nakoda were excluded from the park in the interests of game conservation, sport hunting, and tourism, all of which are forces for profit.7 John Sandlos has also pointed out that in addition to leading to profits for settlers, dispossession in parks led to a coinciding decrease in economic stability for Indigenous peoples.8
The profitability of this dispossession is inherently connected to the exclusive nature of game conservation, sport hunting, and tourism. As Tina Loo, Meg Stanley, and Alan MacEachern have shown earlier in this series, the profitability of national park tourism has historically hinged on the racial and class exclusivity of national park travel. How can we as historians continue to highlight the profitability of historical and contemporary dispossession and exclusion? And more importantly, how do we communicate these narratives to the public?
2. Parks as Landlords
The creation of park boundaries ostensibly placed the park service, federal or provincial, in the role of property owner or landlord. They have the power to determine who is welcome in the park and what kind of behaviour is allowed, tolerated or condoned. In the case of hotels, lodges, cabins, and campsites, they have control over who is welcome in the park on holiday, and, by charging (often steep) rates, provide an obstacle to park access.
In many national and provincial parks, the presence of private cottage owners illuminates the park’s role as landlord even more strongly. By renting or selling land within parks to private cottage leasers and owners, governments privilege one kind of park-goer over another and provide preferred access to individuals who have the money to purchase a second home. An analysis of the way in which these cottage leases perpetuate broader social inequalities within park boundaries and proliferate racial inequality is much needed.
3. Gatekeeping Profit
In Spirits of the Rockies, Courtney W. Mason demonstrates how the Nakoda peoples embraced Banff Indian Days and other tourism opportunities in and around Banff to take back some control and to make money. “One of the ways local Indigenous communities responded to colonial constraints was through their selective engagement in the local tourism industry,” he writes.9 Tourism and other forms of park work are a way for Indigenous peoples and other marginalized people living on the peripheries of parks to reassert their power and survive economically in places that often offer few other viable opportunities for monetary gain.
Environmental organizations and governments have historically looked down upon small tourism businesses and labeled them as incompatible with conservation and preservation initiatives.10 When we claim that “parks are not for profit,” we further enable governments and large businesses and corporations who are profiting off parks to hide behind preservation, while increasing our ability to delegitimize small business owners and Indigenous peoples who do not wield the same power.
Moving Past “Parks Are Not For Profit”
The irony of claiming that “parks are not for profit” is that it handicaps the very cause that environmental groups are claiming to fight for because it is does not acknowledge reality. If anyone knows that parks are for-profit, then it is the governments (both liberal and conservative) that manage them and the businesses that profit off this management. When the UCP proposed eliminating some of Alberta’s parks, they were not going to be swayed by a claim that ‘parks are not for profit’ because there is no evidence for it. Claiming something does not make it so.
Claiming that ‘parks are not for profit’ also hinders our ability to imagine a future in which they actually are not profitable. It hinders our ability to think of a future beyond parks. Instead of exclaiming “parks are not for profit!” how about: “Parks are for profit. How do we make this profit more equitable?” or “Parks are for profit. How does this affect our ability to foster the kind of park systems we want?”
In order to act as full stewards of our park systems, we have to acknowledge parks in their messy and complicated entirety. We must acknowledge them as colonial institutions. We must acknowledge them as institutions that perpetuate inequality. We must acknowledge them as institutions that enable profit for a select few. Then, when we have moved past denial, we can get to work.
Feature Photograph: Private Cottages at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, November 2020. Photo Credit: Jessica DeWitt
- Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park by Courtney W. Mason
- Indigenous Peoples, National Parks, and Protected Areas: A New Paradigm Linking Conservation, Culture, and Rights edited by Stan Stevens
- “To Wood Buffalo National Park, with love” by Chloe Dragon Smith and Robert Grandjambe
- Natural Selection: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 by Alan MacEachern
- On this Patch of Grass: City Parks on Occupied Land by Daisy Couture, Sadie Couture, Selena Couture, and Matt Hern
- Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors by Carolyn Finney
- Hunter at the Margins: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories by John Sandlos
- A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 edited by Claire E. Campbell
- Manufacturing National Park Nature: Photography, Ecology, and the Wilderness Industry of Jasper by J. Keri Cronin
- Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydro-Electric Storage Reservoir by Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles
- Matt Hern, et. al., “City Parks on Occupied Land” in On This Patch of Grass: City Parks on Occupied Land (Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2018): 2.
- North American environmentalism is predominantly white. In 2014, Dorceta Taylor found that in the United States ethnic minorities made up only 16% of the total number of staff and board members at environmental organizations. Dorceta E. Taylor, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations,” July 2014, http://vaipl.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ExecutiveSummary-Diverse-Green.pdf. For more on racial exclusivity in mainstream environmentalism see: Carolyn Finney, “It’s Not Easy Being Green” in Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014): 92-115.
- Felicia A. Henderson and Zoe Kinias, “Understanding the Origins of White Denial,”INSEAD Knowledge, September 24, 2020, https://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/understanding-the-origins-of-white-denial-15281.
- Jessica DeWitt, “A Reluctant Steward: Alberta and Its Parks,” Network in Canadian History and Environment (March 9, 2020): https://niche-canada.org/2020/03/09/a-reluctant-steward-alberta-and-its-parks/.
- Jessica DeWitt, “Comps Notes: Bella’s Parks for Profit,” Historical DeWitticisms, August 30, 2018, https://jessicamdewitt.com/2018/08/30/comps-notes-bellas-parks-for-profit/.
- Theodore (Ted) Binnema and Melanie Niemi, “’Let the Line Be Drawn Now’: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada,” Environmental History 11.4 (October 2006), https://www.jstor.org/stable/3985800.
- John Sandlos, “National Parks in the Canadian North: Comanagement or Colonialism Revisited?” in Indigenous Peoples, National Parks, and Protected Areas: A New Paradigm for Linking Conservation, Culture, and Rights, ed. Stan Stevens (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014): 134.
- Courtney W. Mason, Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
- Jessica DeWitt, “Between Stewardship and Exploitation: Private Tourism, State Parks, and Environmentalism,” in Perspectives Issue 2016/4, ed. Liza Piper and Jonathan Clapperton, doi.org/10.5282/rcc/7698.
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