Parliament: Speech on the Fundamental Purpose of National Parks – Maintaining Ecological Integrity

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, although that sounded a bit more like a question, I would like to add a few comments before the close of debate today on Bill C-18.

The Rouge National Urban Park Act is extremely important. It has given us an opportunity to have a discussion about the larger purposes of national parks in Canada.

I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Algonquin of Golden Lake. I think that is an important aspect of what we are doing here with the Rouge National Urban Park; it is reconnecting with the first nation peoples and their traditions, use, and occupation of the territory that was here before there was a Canada.

It is important that as we reflect on the purposes of national parks we not fall into what I have found frustrating in the debate on Bill C-18, which has been something of a false debate on the purpose of a national park and why we are worried about ecological integrity.

Ecological integrity is at the heart of the reason we create parks. We do not create national parks in this country to create amusement park areas or primarily for the purpose of giving Canadians and foreign visitors a chance to walk in the woods. That is a wonderful side effect of creating a national park.

National parks have the highest order of protection within the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s protected areas hierarchy. They are the crown jewels in every country. National parks, unlike provincial parks, are more restrictive in what one can do. Yes, I enjoy hiking in national parks, but I know that in some areas, one is not to take a dog at all, and in no place is one to take a dog off a leash. Provincial parks are different.

In no place in Canada should we compromise on the fundamental principle of ecological integrity to encourage economic development. There was a bit of a slippery slope some time ago. Back in 1998, the federal government commissioned a panel on ecological integrity. It was chaired by Jacques Gérin, a former deputy minister of Environment Canada and a very respected civil servant, who I am proud to call one of my dear friends. Jacques Gérin, as the deputy minister of Environment Canada, had the misfortune for a while of being deputy minister to the one minister of the environment in the history of this country who truly did not understand the purpose of a national park. This was in the Mulroney administration. Some members may recall Suzanne Blais-Grenier. She was the only minister of the environment who ever said out loud, “Gee, it’s a shame. Why can’t we mine and log in our national parks. That seems like a lost opportunity.” Her time working within the Mulroney cabinet was brief. Fortunately, the prime minister, Brian Mulroney, did not appreciate having a minister of the environment musing about clear-cut logging in national parks or why we were not mining or damming. She was shuffled out of cabinet, and the person I came to work for sometime later, the hon. Tom McMillan, replaced her.

It was a moment when people began to rock back on their heels and say, “Wait a minute. Could we actually have a minister of the environment in cabinet who does not understand that the purpose of national parks is to protect these areas from development?”

We have a vast area of this country outside of all protection. It is very clear that most of Canada is not protected. Therefore, when we do say that this is a national park, we have to understand the purpose of that park. That purpose was clarified by a panel created on ecological integrity back in 1998 that reported that ecological integrity must not be ignored. It must be fundamental.

This issue is critically important to the creation of national parks.

With that, the Canada National Parks Act was amended to ensure that ecological integrity stayed there as the paramount purpose of national parks. Frankly, that was being eroded over the 10 years of the Harper administration. We saw a private, for-profit company put an ice walkway in Jasper National Park. Yes, it is a great tourist attraction, but no, it did not contribute to the ecological integrity of Jasper National Park. Neither did it contribute to the ecological integrity of Cape Breton Highlands National Park when the previous administration was promoting the horrific idea, which thankfully, this Minister of Environment and Climate Change has seen the end of, of a mother Canada statue in Green Cove, a pristine area of the coastline of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Development and tourist attractions of that type are completely inappropriate for our national parks.

The debate on Bill C-18 has given us a chance, in closing the debate at third reading, to reaffirm that national parks are about ecological integrity. That is why we have to go back and look at the Sable Island national park act that passed in the 41st Parliament. It still, lamentably, allows the Canada/Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board to have superior regulatory authority within the national park over Parks Canada itself. The CNSOPB is allowed to order seismic testing and to merely notify Parks Canada. It does not even have to consult in advance. That national park act, like the Rouge National Urban Park Act, needs to be revisited and ecological integrity restored as the core purpose of creating that park.

There have been some red herrings in this debate about forest fires burning out of control. Ecological integrity in every instance relates to the ecosystem we are protecting. The Carolinian forest is, with the exception of the Garry oak forest type in southern Vancouver Island, the most endangered forest type in Canada. Unlike Canada’s boreal forests, the Carolinian forest is not a fire-driven ecosystem. It does not need, for ecological purposes, fires to burn through it. It is a moist forest. It is a hardwood forest. It has 70 different species of trees. It is far more biologically diverse than the boreal, for example. It has more than 400 bird species. It has marshlands, and we are losing our wetlands at an extraordinarily fast rate, particularly in southern Canada.

Despite the concern, which I acknowledge is valid, from an environmental lawyer like John Swaigen, from the Friends of the Rouge, who would still like to see changes made, this is a point where we cannot make changes. We might revisit it in a number of years. However, right now we need to reassert that while 75% of the Rouge National Urban Park is still in its wild state and 25% is disturbed, Parks Canada can have a plan and a vision, and Canadians can support it, to restore more of the marshlands and restore more of the Carolinian forest. We can ensure that in this time of climate change we provide as much of a corridor as possible for those species that are moving further north as the climate changes so that they have a habitat to find as they go north,

We need the Rouge National Urban Park. We need it whether it is an urban park or a wild park. It is the Rouge National Urban Park Act that we debate today, that we put to bed today at third reading. I support it, I am grateful for it, and I am very grateful to my colleagues for giving me this abbreviated time. I did not need to take my full 10 minutes.

I just want to reassert that parks are about ecological integrity, full stop. That is why we create them. That is why we must protect the concept, the principle, and the foundational purpose of our national park system: to protect the ecological integrity of Canada’s diverse ecosystems.

Wayne Stetski  Kootenay—Columbia, BC

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands for her continued care for the environment over many years.

We are working right now on a study on the Aichi targets to try get Canada’s protected land from 10% to 17% and our marine area from 1% to 10% by 2020, which are pretty ambitious targets. Many of the witnesses we heard from suggested that in the long run, Canada should be looking at 50% of the land and 30% of marine areas protected in some form in Canada.

I would be interested in the member’s views on the future for conservation and protection in Canada.

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague from Kootenay—Columbia who himself has had a long career track record, particularly with our parks system.

Targets are important, but targets can be misleading. One of the things out of the Brundtland Commission, the World Commission on Environment and Development, was a mistake. Certainly the author of the Brundtland Commission report, Jim MacNeill, lamented that somehow, people took out of that report 12%. It was sort of a magic number. If we could protect that, then everything else would take care of itself.

Ideally, we have graduated systems of protection. The national parks, as I mentioned, are the crown jewels, so no industrial activity at all should take place within national parks, and we should avoid the notion that they are a cash cow to pay for Parks Canada.

As my colleague from Kootenay—Columbia mentioned earlier, Parks Canada should be adequately funded so that the agency does not have to rely for so much of its revenue stream on people paying for services. That tends to drive us in the direction of national park Disneylands. We need to avoid that.

If we go out across the landscape, farmers, we know, are great conservationists. Ranchers can be great conservationists. Knowing how to protect things, they lamented deeply that the Harper administration killed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, losing hedgerows, losing tall grass prairie. All parts of our ecosystem can be protected through sustainable development and sensitive use, even when we are exploiting them for economic purposes.

Arnold Viersen Peace River—Westlock, AB

Madam Speaker, we have been going back and forth on the term “ecological integrity” for a while. Could the member allay some of my fears because, to me, the definition of ecological integrity means that we allow processes such as wildfires, flooding, and pest outbreaks to run their natural course?

It would be much appreciated if she could explain to me how that definition is acceptable within an urban setting.

Elizabeth May

Madam Speaker, there are three core elements of ecological integrity: preserving and protecting natural biodiversity, which is the range and number of species; the natural processes, which the member’s question relates to; as well as limiting unnatural stressors.

In the context of wildfires, Parks Canada has never let a wildfire burn in any park if there is human habitation nearby. Therefore, that is a limit. It is a natural limit and it makes sense. As I mentioned before, with the Carolinian forests, fires are not a natural stressor. Fires can occur in any place in Canada, but they are not part of the natural ecosystem type known as the “Carolinian forest” as opposed to the boreal, which clearly is a fire-driven ecosystem. Replenishment, rebirth, and new forests happen in the boreal through fire. However, even in the boreal forest, Parks Canada would not allow a boreal forest fire to burn out of control and threaten a community.

Therefore, there are common-sense limits to this, and Parks Canada has always applied them.