I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here. 

Taking the Air: Ideas and Change in Canada’s National Parks

Paul Kopas

Paul Kopas is a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of British Columbia. In Taking the Air: Ideas and Change in Canada’s National Parks, Kopas states that Canada’s national parks serve as icon of the country’s nationhood, and that these icons are materializations of the public’s attitude towards the environment at any given time. National Parks are imbued with meaning that is ever-changing. Like William Lowry, Kopas contends that government officials and policy are at the heart of this change. In Taking the Air, Kopas sets out to analyze the diverse policies of the Canadian National Parks in the years between 1955 and the present (2007), the ways in which these policies evolved, and the contextual stage on which these policies were born. Kopas writes that “National Parks policy can be explained best by examining the institutionalization of ideas within a context of constant change and interaction among environmental interest groups and state institutions.” (14). The degree to which either group has power over policy decisions is determined by the contextual ideas that were dominant at any given point and the meanings that these ideas instill in the national parks. These ideas, argues Kopas, are rather transient and remained dominant typically for ten to fifteen years at time, the span of which he refers to as “regulatory regimes.”

Kopas agrees with Leslie Bella that parks were initially founded in the late nineteenth century with profit and economic development in mind. National Parks were, in the nineteenth century and still are to an extent, ideological symbols of nationalism and democratic ideals. Prior to the Second World War, led by the efforts of J.B. Harkin, the Canadian Park Service fully entrenched the dichotomy of preservation and recreation goals into park policy with the 1930 National Parks Act. From 1955 to 1970, park policy was characterized by heavy state initiative, which used the national parks as means of environmental policy. The 1964 Parks Policy reiterated the balance between recreation and preservation made in the 1930 act, with special emphasis on the need for environmental preservation. The System Plan, as a fully bureaucratic initiative, attempted to unify the disparate parks into one overarching objective.

In the years between 1970 and 1979, Kopas argues that national park policy was dominated by public participation. The social meaning of parks changed so that it was no longer only an instrument of government whim. They were locales for cultural interaction and discovery between varying groups of people, or as Kopas puts it, “human landscapes.” Policymakers during this time period had to ensure that they had public approval before making any decisions regarding the parks. Expansion of the park service into the north also marked the point at which aboriginals were brought into the decision making process. Government officials were no longer able to ignore aboriginal land claims. Increased public involvement enabled environmental groups to gain enough footing to take over policy decisions during the Mulroney government of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Organized interests were able to gain enough power that they were sometimes able to evade bureaucratic processes while in pursuit of their goals. Increased interaction between interests groups and the government inevitably led to increased focus on the preservationist side of the National Parks mandate.

Writing over a decade after Lowry, Kopas is able to better analyze the direction that national parks have taken from 1990s onward. Kopas agrees that the 1980s were dominated by preservationist sentiment, but observes that recently the national park policy has moved back into the hands of bureaucrats, and has subsequently refocused on the utilitarian, profit-driven, recreational portion of the mandate. National Parks are now presented as marketable artifacts of Canadian Heritage.

Feature Photo: Moraine Lake Sunset, Banff National Park by Alexander Shchukin, Flickr

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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