Skip to main content

Former Parks Canada staff are beginning to speak out aboaut the desecration of some of Canada’s national treasures. One such example is the SkyWalk over the Columbia Icefields at Jasper.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

If it hadn't been for the California gold rush, Walt Disney would have been a Canadian, as was his father.

There are some in Parks Canada who quietly believe – and many who were once with Parks Canada who will no longer stay quiet – that the godfather of theme parks would have fit right in here, the way things have been going.

They point to the 24-metre-high Mother Canada statue that may soon be going up in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. They mention the increasing infatuation with "glamping" ("glamorous camping") in park campgrounds. They shudder at the proposal for roofed overnight accommodation at exquisite, unspoiled Maligne Lake, a major attraction in Jasper National Park. They cringe at the Glacier Skywalk that has been built along the Icefields Parkway that runs between Jasper and Banff. They shake their heads to think that land may soon be taken out of legally designated wilderness and added to the Lake Louise ski resort lease so that the ski operation could nearly double in size.

Kevin Van Tighem, who was superintendent of Banff National Park until his retirement five years ago, has become one of the most outspoken of the disenchanted former Parks Canada managers – 28 of whom signed a letter protesting the Mother Canada project.

Canada's world-famous national parks, Mr. Van Tighem says, are no longer valued for what they were intended – but are increasingly being treated as "raw material to be commodified into a bundle of Disneyesque visitor attractions and marketing packages." It is as if "nature was no longer enough," laments the former superintendent.

These former managers point to the official mandate of Parks Canada and say that it has been stripped of its integrity. The Canada National Parks Act, which was passed in 2000, states that these parks (now 46 in number) are for the people of Canada and "shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

According to the legislation, the first priority of the minister responsible (currently Liberal Catherine McKenna, previously Conservative Leona Aglukkaq) shall be the "maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes."

Nikita "Nik" Lopoukhine served as director-general for National Parks Directorate when that clause was added. Today, retired in Ottawa and still chair emeritus of the World Commission on Protected Areas, he bemoans the fate of those good intentions.

"This is the fundamental mandate that should be driving decisions," says Mr. Lopoukhine. "The non-ecological-integrity dedicated staff has pushed the point that ecological integrity may be a first priority – but there are other priorities. Forgetting the first priority, though, seems to be easy when political and other pressures are applied."

For former managers, such as Mr. Lopoukhine and Mr. Van Tighem, the Mother Canada project is the perfect example of how things have gone so wrong.

The massive statue is an idea that began with Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani, who wished to see some memorial erected to those who did not come home from wars in which Canada has fought. The statue would depict a woman with outstretched arms and is inspired by the statue, Canada Bereft, which adorns the national memorial to the First World War dead near Vimy, France.

The Never Forgotten Foundation was created to raise the expected $25-million required to complete construction of the statue, parking lot and various other attractions. The initiative had the support of then-regional cabinet minister Peter MacKay and retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, as well as several high-profile Canadians who have since largely stepped away.

Another group, Friends of Green Cove, was founded to fight the proposal's location. They have nothing against a memorial to the war dead, but they believe placing it in a national park along one of the country's most spectacular vistas is simply wrong. Others agree. "Offensively tasteless," in the words of a Globe and Mail editorial.

Such rush to development, says the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, have created "a crisis in our national parks." The parks, according to national director Alison Woodley, "are part of the heart and soul of this country. They are our natural treasures and they belong to each and every one of us as Canadians, but private commercial development is putting our most special protected areas at risk."

The Mother Canada controversy has split the small community of Green Cove, many of whom see jobs in the building and tourism potential in the future. The Friends of Green Cove, who oppose the statue's placement, scoff at the suggestion that this would have been a last sighting of land for convoys leaving for Europe. One of the Friends, Sandra Barr, distinguished professor of geology at Acadia University, first began researching the Green Cove area four decades ago and claims the surrounding rock structure is unique. The proposal to build there, she told local media, is an "absurdity."

And yet, the Never Forgotten Foundation has a letter of support posted on its website that comes from Alan Latourelle, chief executive officer of Parks Canada. The letter says that Parks Canada is "honoured" to be involved in the project and says it would be "an exceptionally striking and appropriate addition to Cape Breton Highlands National Park."

Retired managers say many National Parks employees are "embarrassed" by the letter and even more so by a $100,000 donation Parks Canada made to the foundation wanting to build the statue. The money was to be used for a study of the project and the establishment of a website.

Mr. Lopoukhine is among those who believe political pressure was brought to bear on the department. "They in effect coerced Parks Canada," he says, "after cutting [its budget] 19 per cent – to give $100,000 to the foundation."

"We are very much opposed to the proposed location of this large memorial statue with its associated parking, restaurant and interpretive centre," said the letter sent to then-minister Aglukkaq by the 28 former senior managers with Parks Canada. "It is not only inappropriate for a national park, it is in violation of the site's Wilderness zone designation as detailed in the management plan for the park. … in Nova Scotia there is no shortage of sites that can accommodate such a project. Green Cove is not one of them."

"We are not against the statue," Mr. Lopoukhine adds, "just where it would be."

Ms. McKenna, the minister of the environment and climate change who is responsible for Parks Canada, has said there will be a review that will include environmental assessment and the public consultation process.

For Mr. Van Tighem, the Mother Canada situation reflects an attitude in which some in Parks Canada now say: "Rules? We don't actually have those any more, so what did you have in mind as a money-making idea for our park? We'll dress it up in heritage language and funky marketing-speak to persuade ourselves it's good for national parks, and then you can have at 'er."

Mr. Van Tighem's hope is that a different leadership climate might "revitalize Park's Canada's respect for itself. In my view, Parks Canada doesn't need bottom-up change – there are many good people in the organization, they are just scared and demoralized. And it doesn't need some kind of revitalization of public support: Every single public opinion survey or consultation program through my whole career and since then has confirmed that the vast majority of Canadians value national parks, want them protected, and see them as publicly accessible nature preserves, not as theme parks.

"What is needed right now is top-down change: real leadership from a government, minister and CEO who deeply love the idea of national parks as places free from artifice, commodification and commercialization, where nature rules and all Canadians are free to discover the wild and the natural.

"Frankly, Canadians should settle for nothing less."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe