By Jessica DeWitt
[We are publishing this in partnership with the Network in Canadian History & Environment.]
This past week the Alberta Provincial Government announced it’s plan to ‘optimize’ its park system. This includes:
- The full or partial closure of twenty parks.
- Shortened operating seasons.
- Fewer groomed cross-country tracks
- Closures of a few visitor information centres
- Service fee increases
- A proposal to partner with public, non-profit, and Indigenous organizations to co-manage 164 parks.
Unsurprisingly this news has caused an uproar from Alberta residents and park-goers. People mourn the closure of their favourite parks. They fear for a possible future for-profit park system and what that will mean for recreation and preservation in the province. For the general public parks are more than a line on a balance sheet. They are places where we relax, create memories, and find ourselves. They are something we can be proud of. They are good.
As someone who has immersed myself in the history of provincial park development and studied Alberta’s park system in detail, I am not as distressed by this news as one may expect. One reason for this lack of anxiety on my part is that I know that parks are dynamic, colonial institutions that have always existed in a for-profit, capitalist system. Parks are pieces of land whose borders are designated by settler governments As Leslie Bella noted in Parks for Profit, the creation of a park is inherently exploitative. Parks reside on occupied land. The boundaries of a park are created by settler governments in order to control and economically benefit from the activities that take place within them.
“Parklands are often positioned as apolitical, as ‘common’ or public land that somehow eludes examination amidst the grit of property markets and land-use battles, but it is critical to understand parks as a central feature of colonial land logics, as aggressively regulating and disciplining the land and its occupations.” – Matt Hern, On This Patch of Grass: City Parks on Occupied Land
We may wrap our parks in a shroud of preservation, but ultimately they exist because they are useful to us. Any claim that parks are not about making money (at least partially) is false. There is no magical time in the past when provincial park systems acted solely altruistically.
My initial reaction upon hearing about the optimization plan was: “yeah, that sounds about right.” If there is anything that sets Alberta’s park history apart from other provinces and US states, it is its repeated regret at creating them. Throughout its history the province has tried to close and offload its parks onto other public governing bodies and private institutions. When they have not directly tried to do this, they have whispered internally about a desire to do so. Alberta has always been a reluctant park steward. Continue reading