Wilderness and Environmental Movements in Canada
Environmental conservation in Canada can be traced to the Aboriginal peoples, based on the numerous centuries that they lived off the Canadian land yet inflicted minimal destruction. Among activities that are considered environmentally destructive are clearance of areas for settlements and lighting of fires that may drive away game. These activities may affect nature, but Aboriginal peoples maintained the environment at a balance and after every short period they would shift their settlements to other areas in order to get better hunting grounds and at the same time allow the previous region to grow back as well as promote repopulation of wildlife (Hummel, 2010). Concerns over environmental conservation began shortly after permanent European settlement. These concerns relating to conservation of natural resources and nature developed periodically in 6 phases including the ‘Tree reserves period’, the ‘Land reserves period’ and the ‘Recreation reserves period’. Starting the 1960s, the wilderness and nature stage began and is commonly referred to as the ‘Nature and wilderness reserve period’ (Hummel, 2010). It is during this period that concerns over the fate of Canadian wildernesses and nature intensified coupled with new perceptions among Canadians regarding the value of wild country. Environmental activism hence developed a new approach that prioritized the natural resources and areas of wild country in Canada. Although environmental movements in the country embraced this new focus, it did not result in sidelining of other environmental conservation initiatives but rather complimented efforts towards regulation of resource use, industrial regulation, pollution eradication and responsible recreation.
The wilderness is perceived to be both a condition of landscape as well as a state of mind although the dominant perception relates to the condition of landscape. Wilderness is defined by Loo (2001) to be natural terrain that is yet to be modified by man and that is typically isolated from civilization. This area encompasses a system of ecological, recreation and ethical values. Americans generally gained interest in conservation of resources before Canadians did probably due to the extensive settlement in the United States that opened American’s eyes to the extent of damage that can be caused by civilization. Concerns for natural resources begin when the mentality that wildlife, forests and other natural features are ‘unlimited’ dies. The first national parks that were established in Canada were Glacier, Yoho and Banff in 1886 and 1885 respectively (Hummel, 2010). It was a major initiative that facilitated the continued activitism on environmental conservation and the present progress in preservation of wildernesses in Canada. Environmental interests that almost peaked in Canada in the 1960s boosted movement in nature conservation. Several groups including the Sierra Club, the ‘Canadian Audubon Society’ and the ‘Nature Federation’ partnered and formed the ‘Nature Canada’ (Hummel, 2010). An evaluation of the duties and initiatives of one of the groups will indicate the effort that such groups have had on improving environmental conditions and preserving nature. The World Wildlife Fund Canada has a primary objective of saving life and since living things are dependent on the earth for survival, efforts towards achievement of the organization’s objectives include nature conservation and monitoring of ecological processes (Canadian Forests, 2013). Biological diversity is essential for human beings and other species on earth to survive. The wealth of both large and small species that constitute the natural world is hence prioritized and effort put into saving it (Hummel, 2010). Canadian environmental groups and organizations such as the ‘World Wildlife Fund Canada’ hence have included concepts of the wilderness in their work and in conserving nature achieve other environmental conservation objectives like reduction of pollution, discouragement of deforestation and protection of endangered species (through conservation of ecological processes) (Hummel, 2010).
In the contemporary period, the environmental movement in the country is in a crisis because over the years, worst practices have been identified and consequences that arise from such practices made known (Kheraj et al, 2012). Presently, environmental movements are faced with the responsibility of developing proactive solutions together with alternatives that are workable for the individual environmental problems. However, the recent economic recession of 2008 and ideological opposition from the Canadian government are some of the challenges that have to be overcome in the process. Due to the slow growth of environmental activism in the country and the recent crisis that it is perceived to be facing, some scholars have come to a conclusion that environmentalism has exhibited failure (Kheraj et al, 2012). Perhaps such an assertion may be made because of the shift in environmental focus that has seen nature conservation gaining popularity and individual environmental issues relating to forest, birds, recreational and land preservation receiving less campaign (Kheraj et al, 2012). Most analysts fail to consider the relationship and interdependence of living things and nature. People that criticize modernity and capitalism argue that nature should not be viewed as a set of commodities or be externalized from the bigger scope of progress. An alternative to such an approach in addressing environmental issues is non-utilitarianism and the environmental movement in Canada has mobilized environmental sciences in order to illustrate the relationship that the environment shares with the human beings and other living organisms on the earth. For instance, promoting conservation of nature and protecting wildernesses in the country is justified by the balance that nature is considered to create in the world. The woodland caribou is a good example because it is endangered in Canada and a recommended action by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is that boreal forest in Quebec should be protected from exploitation (CPAWS, 2014). Preserving this forest would ensure that the animals habitat is not destroyed therefore only few concerns like high number of predators would remain unaddressed. The boreal forest is therefore essential for the survival of the woodland caribou and it is an illustration that conservation of nature and ecology would solve numerous environmental and human problems. United States was the first country (before Canada) to initiate such efforts that were founded on anxieties regarding the loss of wilderness and the benefits that could be realized from preservation of essential national character. It is this concern regarding loss of wilderness that catalysed evolution of the Canadian environmental movement alongside that of the United States especially after a publication by Rachael Carson that detail factors, causes and possible solutions to environmental problems (Kheraj et al, 2010).
Responses to wilderness that were practiced by native peoples in Canada are explained by Johnston (1983) who perceives that these people honoured the earth that provided resources to them. These native people appreciated that the rose and the corn provided food to them and the snake, bear and wolf provided clothing. The Canadian environmental movement makes reference to the influence of European explorers and settlers on the land that was a place of riches prior to their arrival to Canada. Contemporary accounts illustrate that John Cabot arrived in Canada in 1947 and marvelled at the land that was excellent, had perfect climate temperature and had plenty for the occupants (Lower, 1973). The impression regarding Canada’s riches and wealth in natural resources became widely accepted as a fact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based on the flourishing trades in timber and fur from the country at the time (Lower, 1973). Natural resources were sought from the country’s wilderness and consequentially, the wilderness was tamed, agriculture grew and civilization was embraced. The wilderness starting the nineteenth century was significantly lost in acreage prompting artists to seek ways to reflect it through art as a way of appreciating it (Marsh, 2000). The Canadian environmental movement continued this concern of the wilderness after the end of the First World War and raised awareness regarding the effects of destruction of resources coupled with the shortage of resources that would follow. It is this concern for various resources ranging from trees to wildlife that resulted in initiation of conservation measures that would facilitate the survival of diverse species and sustain the economy of the country. The movement began with protection of forests and wildlife but beginning the 1960s conserving nature was considered to encompass most of these environmental considerations that were made previously. Natural forests constitute the wilderness hence preserving the wilderness would achieve a similar objective to protecting forests. Wildlife form part of the nature because they are part of the eco-system hence conserving ecological processes and nature similarly achieve the objective in protecting wildlife. Bella (1987) gives reference to the establishment of Banff, Glacier and Yoho national parks as a major move by the Canadian environment movement in conjunction with the dominion government of Canada towards preserving wildernesses in the country and nature as a whole. Environmental activism hence gained prominence in this period and additional arks that were projected to preserve wildlife and forests got established, such as the Elk Island, Wood Buffalo, Point Pelee, Prince Edward, Terra Nova and Kejimkujik. Kijimkujic was established in 1968 when nature conservation was championed by environmental groups and its objective contains an additional focus on preserving the historical sites and natural heritage of the country (MacEarchern, 2001). A unit of the park is chosen as a national historic site of the country. This unit is unique because it is the only national park in the Canadian national park system that has virtually the whole area of the park as a national historic site. Among the resources preserved in this ark are forested uplands, sandy beaches, coastal wetlands, rivers and lakes. The resources and landscape here conserved constitute nature therefore it is apparent that such a park that was established in the 1960s reflects the shift in focus from environmental groups towards wilderness preservation.
Wildlife conservation society (WCS) is an environmental group that has recently increased activism and campaigns for action with regards to wildlife. The environmental group recognizes that the vast wilderness regions in the country offer up extraordinary opportunities in conservation, but expresses concerns over the development decisions that have been increasing in Canada’s northern reaches based on the unprecedented threats that the decisions pose (Slobig, 2014). WCS began its work in Canada in the early years of 1900 and has been permanently present in the country since 1997. It became independently incorporated in Canada in 2004 and makes assessments as well as recommendations on major wildlife species together with their needs with a number of groups such as governments and conservation groups (WCS, 2014). Most of the species that the group works with are impacted by changes in landscape, wilderness and climate. For instance, the caribou and freshwater fish are affected by landscape changes and water pollution respectively (WCS, 2014). In order to conserve the species therefore, nature is preserved and consequentially the environment is not destroyed and major environmental problems solved (WCS, 2014).
Environmental groups and organizations including the ‘Tree Canada Foundation’ and the ‘Western Canada Wilderness Committee’ championed for structured systems in park creation as well as management. This push by the environmental organizations and the environmental movement was fuelled by concerns regarding the long-term implementation of measures to preserve natural areas (Stoddart, 2011). Consequentially, a plan was developed illustrating the national parks that were pictured to develop for the total system to be conserved (Environment Canada, 1979). National parks at the moment were created aiming to protect natural areas that represented Canada’s heritage. Additionally, the parks would encourage people to understand, appreciate and enjoy the country’ heritage therefore preserving it for future generations (Environment Canada, 1979). This objective and mission of national parks led to division of the country based on biophysical regions. At least one park was required in every biophysical region so 39 of them were created (Marsh, 2000). Concerns over loss of wilderness and natural resources in Canada hence advanced contemporary environmental activism and influenced environmental groups to establish a framework through which national parks could be created and managed.
The influence that vulnerability of wilder areas in the country had did not hinder but rather increased environmental activism and the level of awareness in values relating to the significance of wilderness to Canadian peoples heritage. For instance, Olson was a writer who reflected on past experiences and realized the degree of change that had taken place in natural areas in the country (Olson, 1966). He reminisced on the silence and freedom that existence in the wilderness, the values that moulded the Canadian people as a race, rocky islands and the vast unused space that was there for people to explore and seek adventure. It is these memories and the realization that much of that wilderness had already been destroyed which resulted in his desire to preserve the environment and what was left of the wilderness (Olson, 1966). Such environmental activism is not linked to forest depletion or wildlife extinction but rather ensued because of concerns relating to the vulnerability of wilderness and nature.
Environmental groups have harnessed the concepts of wilderness by embracing the present perceptions of wilderness that are influenced by the modifications that may have occurred (although the modification may have been little before intervention was initiated to preserve the wilderness) (Marsh, 1966). Environmental groups in the country presently refer to most landscapes as heritage. ‘Heritage’ has become a term that is used when referring to historical and natural features. In fact, the agency that is currently holds responsibility over national parks in the country is no longer called ‘Parks Canada’ but the ‘department of Canadian Heritage (Marsh, 1966). Discourses of wilderness that are employed by environmental organizations have acknowledged that modifications may have occurred in wilderness therefore affecting the ecological integrity of these areas. In response, the wilderness society and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee are among environmental groups that have developed measures to maintain ecological integrity through national parks. The justification is that modifications may have resulted in loss of species in wilderness in the last century and management of wildlife would contribute to improvement of ecological integrity (Marsh, 1966).
In conclusion, concerns over wilderness in Canada have grown over the last half century and in the process concepts of wilderness are reflected in initiatives and measures taken by environmental organizations in the country. Focus on conserving the wilderness has not resulted in less focus on other equally important environmental problems but rather has complimented them because nature and wilderness represent features, objects and factors that promote human well-being. The woodland caribou has been described as an animal that reflects the fusion of nature and species. The animal is vulnerable when landscapes change and it is very essential that environmental organizations reserve its habitat in order to facilitate its survival. In contemporary times, wilderness is perceived differently and even referred to as ‘heritage’. Because of modifications that have occurred in wilderness in Canada, ecological integrity has grown in importance and environmental groups like the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the Wilderness Society have gained interest in maintaining ecological integrity in wild areas.
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