Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, made a memorable campaign stop in Sudbury, Ontario. After paddling a canoe around a local lake, Trudeau emerged to make an announcement related to land and ocean conservation during the federal election campaign. Specifically, he outlined a Liberal Party promise to teach young Canadians to camp by Grade 8 and provide support for 75,000 lower-income families to spend time in provincial and national parks. This announcement points to the iconic place the “wilderness” and Canada’s park system play in the Canadian imaginary. In the following narratives, I draw on some of my own experiences with Canada’s park system to situate outdoor recreation in a broader and more troubling history rarely considered in Canadian mainstream media, classrooms, or politics.
I wake before anyone else, and slip out of the tent as quietly as possible. As the sun begins to make its presence known, I follow the trail around Bertha Lake, taking in the majesty of what is now commonly known as Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.
This weekend, I get to share my love of the mountains with my favourite eight-year-old for the first time, and it is…magic. Yesterday, after we set up camp, we wandered part-way around Bertha Lake, and Quinn was as in awe of this place as am I (see Figure 1).
This is, without a doubt, one of my most memorable moments as a father. I am sharing something that I love deeply with Quinn, and watching him fall in love with it as well.
But here is the rub: More than a simple love of the mountains is connecting the two of us right now. There is something deeper lurking there, something more troubling…
There is nothing inherently “wild” about the wilderness. “Wilderness” on these lands claimed by Canada was, in fact, produced as colonization unfolded. The formation of iconic spaces like Banff National Park came to be through complex processes that involved, among other things, the active removal of Indigenous peoples who called those lands home for millennia, who gathered foods there, who engaged in important cultural practices there, who lived in relation to their non-human kin there. At the same moment as settlers were being invited to come enjoy the splendors of “pristine wilderness,” Indigenous peoples were being subjected to – and often actively resisting – numerous state-sanctioned measures to confine them to small parcels of land.
In the area now commonly known as Banff, for example, the introduction of a pass system in 1885 coincided with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and criminalized the movements of local Nakoda peoples (by making it illegal for them to leave the reserve without explicit permission from the “Indian Agent”), with the clear purpose of protecting land and “resources” (e.g., wildlife, hot springs) for the consumption of colonizers. At the same time as Indigenous peoples were considered “trespassers” in the lands that were to become Banff National Park and various provincial parks that would collectively come to be known as “Kananaskis Country,” settler entrepreneurs were advertising far and wide for visitors to come enjoy the beauty of this “untouched” wilderness.
It’s day two, and our campsite is perfect; Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is my favourite part of Kananaskis-Country. This morning, as we hike toward Three Isle Lake, we are negotiating a steep section of the trail, gaining a couple hundred meters of elevation in less than a kilometer. I spot a small outcropping that looks perfect for a rest. The views are stunning, and I take several photos, one of which will serve as the lock screen on my cell phone for the next several months (see Figure 2).
I nuzzle in next to Quinn as we munch on trail mix. “Do you know how few people have seen the view we’re seeing right now?” Wrapping my arm gently around his shoulder, I offer: “I am so happy that this is something we get to share, love.”
He leans his head against my shoulder. “Me too,” he says, simply. I am in this moment, knowing that it will be a touchstone in our relationship.
Reflecting on this moment, however, it is more complicated than that. This moment, and our camping trips more generally, are more than simply salve for my soul, more than a collection of touchstone moments and Facebookable photos. I am introducing him to something that I love, something that feels to me like a spiritual home, of sorts. But there is another education at work here, one that I have yet to trouble with him in the ways that I can or should.
In my conversation with Quinn, for example, I erase both the long history of Indigenous peoples’ (especially Stoney Nakoda) presence on these lands, and the fact that these folks lived here. For them, this was not a “view” to be consumed, but a landscape with which they lived in relation. Our presence here constitutes a continuation of this history, and raises critical questions about our complicity in ongoing settler colonial violence on these lands.
Have I told you, my love, that being a father is the hardest thing I’ve ever done? It’s the most rewarding, but also the hardest. And it’s hard in new ways, too, as I worry about different things. One of the things I’m worrying about these days – as you approach your teenage years – is what kind of future you’re going to help build.
The point here is that we have a role to play in terms of the things I’m writing about. We need to better understand the histories, voices, and memories of the places we go. I also want us to learn about the other parks we visit, and about a number of Indigenous-led movements to create new parks and bring other ones under Indigenous control and management. Indigenous peoples and organizations have been doing this work for a long time. Our job is to listen to them, and figure out how to make space.
To be clear, my love, this is not so that we can be kind, or benevolent. Rather, it’s about asking ourselves what kind of future we want to be part of.
With the deepest love for you, and for the world I can’t quite see yet,
Letter first composed in July, 2019
Jason Laurendeau is a white, cis, settler scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge, in Lethbridge, AB, located on lands of the Siksikaitsitapii people, who are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His research interests lie at the intersections of sport and physical culture, gender, settler colonialism, and childhood. Find him on Twitter @JasonLaurendeau.