Rethinking the expulsion of indigenous peoples from Canada’s parks

As soon as one starts thinking about the history and purpose of national parks, so many questions loom. Can activities such as hunting, trapping and fishing coexist comfortably with camping, hiking, tourism, conservation and educational programs? Who are national parks for? Today most Canadians would consider as indisputable the necessity and value of the national park system, which offers the last best hope for conservation and the protection of biodiversity. But at what cost was the richness of the wilderness secured, and who paid this cost? A new collection of essays, Indigenous Peoples, National Parks and Protected Areas: A New Paradigm Linking Conservation, Culture and Rights, edited by geographer Stan Stevens, documents the ongoing history of how indigenous peoples across the globe, particularly since the 1960s, have been expelled from their traditional homelands to create uninhabited nature reserves, often without compensation. The book makes the fascinating case, well supported through evidence from many parts of the world, that emptying lands of human presence is a misguided approach to conservation—indeed, lands that remain untended by human stewards have a greater chance of being exploited by extractive industries and have a lower success rate of maintaining biodiversity. The contributors to Indigenous Peoples, National Parks and Protected Areas suggest that mixed-use conservation areas are much more sustainable in the long term.

Reading this book recalls to my mind my experience in the summer of 2014, when I was invited to Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan to attend a tribute to two important figures in wilderness conservation in Canada: Grey Owl, an Englishman who passionately defended the wilderness, and Mohawk writer Anahareo, who convinced Grey Owl to abandon the life of the trapper so he could take up the cause of conservation and who, thanks to her own success as an author and activist, received the Order of Nature from the International League of Animal Rights in 1979. The tribute was an enormous success, raising awareness of the continued need for conservation and honouring the achievements of both writers. But for me, one of the most powerful moments in the evening was the opening welcome outside the community hall, with dance and music by Cree performer Joseph Crowe, as well as an address by Anahareo’s niece, Carole Crowe, who acknowledged Treaty 6 land. Joseph and Carole Crowe spoke of the park as a homeland for Cree, Métis and other First Nations. Through storytelling, songs, teachings and humour, they mounted a potent critique of the park management’s role in removing indigenous peoples from its boundaries. The guests responded politely, but ultimately moved quickly into the community hall following the performance. It was striking to me how the interaction strongly reinforced the legitimacy of the national park, while the indigenous critique was literally kept outside the main events of the tribute.

Given the context of the 1920s and ’30s, it is not surprising that early conservationists such as Grey Owl and Anahareo saw a vital role for national parks, not only in supporting conservation in Canada, but also in defending indigenous land, rights and ways of life. The two of them were seeing first hand the devastating effects of logging, land clearing, and an unregulated fur trade and trapping to meet the voracious appetite for fur, building material, paper and other raw materials in the southern markets. They were also witnessing a deepening crisis within indigenous communities as a result of the implementation of policies of assimilation and of cultural genocide. The number of First Nations children attending residential schools peaked in 1930, with 80 institutions operating across Canada. The process of reducing vast indigenous territories to tiny squares of land or reserves continued apace. It was against the law for First Nations people to pursue land claims in the courts or to become lawyers, and they could not leave their reserve without a pass. While indigenous people were being pushed off their lands, settlers were given incentives to clear, homestead and agriculturally develop the land. Given this restrictive context, and partly due to his own cultural biases, which saw indigenous peoples as living in harmony with nature, Grey Owl strongly supported the establishment of national parks as one way to safeguard Native land. Because of his celebrity he had access to an audience, particularly to an influential, elite, white Anglo-Saxon audience, that many indigenous land rights activists (such as his friend, Cree leader John B. Tootoosis) did not have. He was hired as the first naturalist of the Dominion Parks Service in 1931. Using his prodigious talents as a writer and speaker, he set out to convince his audience that the land and the animals needed protection.

Although Grey Owl and Anahareo did not conceive of national parks necessarily as empty of human presence—after all, they lived in the famous Beaver Lodge on Lake Ajawaan in Prince Albert National Park for years—this became the dominant paradigm, and the cost to indigenous peoples of implementing this paradigm has been high. Métis elder Maria Campbell, author of the celebrated autobiography Halfbreed, first published in 1973, has described how her family fled the racism and prejudice in the Red River region following the events of 1885 into the non-treaty land that is now Prince Albert Park. There they joined relatives who had not taken part in the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. They thought they could live undisturbed in Northern Saskatchewan—and they did until the federal government set aside the area as a national park in 1927. This place was part of the territories of several groups of First Nations and Métis people, and when Prince Albert National Park was created, again Campbell’s people were dispossessed, an event that ironically involved Grey Owl himself, who was hired to live there and to teach tourists about conservation. Campbell writes in the foreword to Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility and History, edited by Nicole St. Onge, Carolyn Podruchny and Brenda Macdougall: “Our family along with others moved out of the designated area onto crown land along the park’s west boundary.” Soon after, however, the land was opened to homesteading, and once again Campbell’s family lost their land because they did not have the experience, money or equipment to farm the land (a stipulation for maintaining homesteading grants).

Campbell’s story is far from unique, and stories of similar removals in the name of conservation are well documented in Indigenous Peoples, National Parks and Protected Areas. Its chapters—by leading geographers, conservationists and aboriginal rights activists—focus on the impact of establishing and maintaining national parks and other protected areas in Australia, the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, South Africa and Nepal. As of 2011, there were more than 177,500 nationally designated protected areas worldwide that encompass 17 million square kilometres: 12.7 percent of the Earth’s land surface, about the size of South America, and 1.6 percent of the world’s oceans, are considered protected zones. The bulk of this transformation has occurred since the 1960s, and even since the 1990s, when protected areas made up only 8.8 percent of Earth’s terrestrial area. While these are considerable percentages, when looking at the maps in the collection it becomes clear that these protected areas are often isolated, postage stamp–like corners scattered around the globe—uncannily echoing the scattering of reserves and reservations across Canada, the U.S., South Africa, Australia and other places.

According to Stevens, it was only several years ago that conservationists began to question the old paradigm of “fortress conservation” as the singular approach. This paradigm operates according to the following principles: 1) that states should take full responsibility for the creation and governance of protected areas; 2) that the goal should be strict nature preservation; 3) that the lands should be uninhabited; and 4) that coercive force is legally and morally justified to remove people and protect biodiversity. It is notable that fortress conservation echoes notions of terra nullius, or empty land, that enabled colonization and the dispossession of indigenous peoples of their traditional territories in the first place. According to Stevens, tens of millions of indigenous peoples worldwide have been displaced by the establishment and governance of protected areas. This has created what he calls “wilderness by dispossession.”

Part of the legacy of this “empty wilderness” paradigm is, ironically, the continued acceleration of large-scale industrial projects. “Uninhabited wilderness” is almost by definition part of a “frontier” or “hinterland.” The book traces how, in many parts of the world, state agencies continue to authorize development by gas, oil or logging companies, even though laws designed to protect vulnerable lands assert otherwise; how once strict regulatory measures are now being loosened or scrapped altogether; and how many indigenous peoples have been aggressively prevented from living, harvesting the resources, visiting grave sites or carrying out their cultural practices on these traditional -territories.

The main aim of the book is to convince its readers that another way is possible. The book calls for, and helps create, a “new paradigm” in thinking about conservation. Lands that are taken care of by local communities, that remain integrated as part of the fabric of human cultures, and whose conservation is guided by principles of indigenous knowledge, are less likely to be exploited by resource extraction industries and have higher rates of success in protecting biodiversity. The book underlines the same pattern in many parts of the world and in many historical and cultural contexts: the places with the highest rates of biodiversity are located overwhelmingly on indigenous territories. Indigenous populations worldwide and their territories make up 20 percent of the land area of the planet, while they hold up to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Although at one time conservationists assumed that areas of high biodiversity were unoccupied, they now widely recognize these areas as “Indigenous peoples’ homelands, livelihood use areas, and cultural landscapes.” As Bernard Nietschmann writes, “the vast majority of the world biological diversity is not in gene banks, zoos, national parks, or protected areas”; rather, biodiversity flourishes in lands “used by local peoples, mostly indigenous, whose great collective accomplishment is to have conserved the great variety of remaining life forms, using culture, the most powerful and valuable human resource, to do so.” Again and again the chapters underline the strong correspondence between biological diversity, relatively intact ecosystems and indigenous peoples’ territories.

A central question the book raises is “would the future ecological integrity of these areas be more secure if Indigenous peoples’ ownership of them were assured rather than denied.” A chapter by geographer Thomas F. Thornton, on Tlingit cultural practices of conservation and sustainable land use in national parks in Alaska, strongly suggests an affirmative answer. In the United States and Canada, a high percentage of protected areas are associated with formal land title agreements with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, and all of the lands are situated on customary indigenous territories. Alaska’s national parks represent two thirds of the total area of the U.S. national park system. Although the Tlingit were officially granted title to only three percent of their lands through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which also extinguished their aboriginal title, they have never wavered from their belief that they own land and they are deeply responsible to it. Part of what establishing a new paradigm in conservation entails is to view the land not only in material or economic terms, but also as the site of maintaining relations with family, ancestors and other life forms, and as the source of spiritual sustenance and knowledge. The words of Tlingit elder Richard Dalton, talking about his clan’s homeland within Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, are particularly resonant: “I see my grandfathers on that beach, and I see my uncles because this is the place they were in love with.” Pointing to an abandoned cabin, one of the few traces of human habitation in the park, he says: “If I had my way I would probably be living in that building today; then I could get all the fish I want when I need it.” But he is not allowed to live in the park, nor is he permitted to harvest the land’s natural resources.

If, as Thornton argues, we imagine the Tlingit people and the land, along with their “spiritual beliefs, relationships with other life forms, customary laws, [and] collective systems of tenure” as vital to conservation philosophy, new possibilities arise. As much as the book challenges long-cherished notions of the benefits of national parks and other protected areas, it is a hopeful book, as it asserts the role of human culture as the most important resource in conservation initiatives. At its heart is the acknowledgement that, in spite of enormous challenges, indigenous peoples not only have maintained vibrant connections to their territories; they have cared for the lands, and have helped secure a future for all in the coming generations.