The federal government appears dead set on cancelling winter. Parks Canada’s decision to cut funding for the grooming of cross-country ski trails in Prince Albert, Riding Mountain and Elk Island national parks garnered little national attention. It is too easy to dismiss this as an inevitable consequence of government budget reductions. If each budget decision speaks clearly about national priorities the message is that winter does not matter much to the government and, perhaps, to Canadians.
Consider the broad implication of the abandonment of cross-country skiing in three national parks. Canada is, by any definition, a northern nation – but we are not a northern people. Most of us live within a short distance of the U.S. border; well over half our population resides south of the 49th parallel. Canadian tourists are many times more likely to visit Florida, California or the Caribbean than they are to take a winter trip. Our cities are devoted to shunning winter, not embracing it.
There is a great irony in this. The federal government has made repeated statements of devotion to the Canadian Arctic. “Use it or lose it,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said. Well, the truth is that Canadians do not use the North very effectively. Japanese tourists come in large numbers to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights. Not many Vancouverites make the trip. Germans by the planeload – there are direct summer flights from Frankfurt to Whitehorse – travel to the Yukon each year, but precious few Torontonians make the journey. The national approach to the North in Canada is akin to the world’s interest in Mars – a far distant place that holds a certain fascination but is not seen as accessible.
The federal government should be doing everything it can to get Canadians into the North – and into our national parks. New Canadians, very few of them coming from lands with cold winters, should be encouraged to experience this country’s remarkable cold weather natural beauty. Far from cancelling cross-country skiing in the national parks, Ottawa should be publicizing northern and winter experiences.
We spent a recent weekend in Prince Albert National Park. The snow-covered park was stunning. We passed a herd of five elk along the road near the town. Over breakfast, we watched a whitetail buck cavorting along the waterfront. When we walked in the forest, we came across deer meandering peacefully through the trees. These are precious experiences, worth sharing with all Canadians.
Consider the exact opposite of the federal government’s expenditure on park ski trails. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Canadians travel south for the sun, each packing heavily subsidized health-care coverage in their suitcases alongside their sunscreen and Speedos. The Saskatchewan government announced in early November that travellers leaving the province can purchase six months of prescription drugs before they leave. But they cannot, as of this winter, use properly groomed ski trails in three Western Canadian national parks.
Canada used to be very proud of its northern character, seeing cold and long winters as being integral to our creativity, hardiness and collective spirit. Increasingly, winter is seen as an unwelcome evil. If we are to be a northern nation, we need to embrace winter again, not kill off our national commitment to winter activities by a thousand tiny cuts. Dropping funding for cross-country ski trails in three national parks is a small contribution to fighting the national debt. It is a much more severe assault on our claim to being a country that relishes and celebrates the one season – winter – that defines us a nation.
Ken Coates and Carin Holroyd are outdoor enthusiasts in Saskatoon.