Spanning the width and breadth of Canada — and present in the childhood memories of many — the national parks system has been an iconic institution for the last century.

On July 16, Parks Canada is celebrating its 100th birthday with Parks Day, a cross-country affair featuring parties in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The day's festivities include nature tours, games and concerts, as well as Doors Open, which gives Canadians free entry to all national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

The organization oversees 42 national parks, 167 historical sites, four national marine conservation areas and even the gravesites of former prime ministers.

Which is your favourite national park?

Submit your stories, photos and videos to let the CBC know which of the 42 parks you like best. We'll be collecting them throughout the summer, eventually building them into an interactive map to share with other Canadians.

Parks Canada's mandate is to protect unique examples of Canada's cultural and natural landscapes and present those to Canadians — including future generations. Not surprisingly, this puts preservation of those landscapes high on its agenda. 

Early days 

Parks Canada can trace its lineage back to 1885, when the country's first national park — a tiny 26-square-kilometre area — was created in Banff, Alta.

The primary aim was to create a tourist destination close to the Canadian Pacific Railway and exploit the economic potential of the area's hot springs, said Claire Campbell, editor of A Century of Parks Canada, a collection of essays looking at the history of Parks Canada.

'When we started, we only had 10 or 12 national parks.'—Alan Latourelle, CEO Parks Canada

In 1911, the federal government created the Dominion Parks Branch, as it was called then, to look after the country's handful of national parks. It was the first of its kind in the world.

Since then, the organization has undergone a series of name changes — its official designation now is Parks Canada Agency — and the number and size of its parks has grown dramatically.

Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada, said that growth has been the most significant development.

"When we started, we only had 10 or 12 national parks, but now we are truly a national park system spread right across Canada."

Much of that expansion took place during the last two decades, with the creation of huge protected areas in the country's north, like the 19,000-square-kilometre Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island, which was established in 2001.

With a staff of more than 4,500, including wardens, scientists, interpreters, historians and tour guides, Parks Canada now oversees 377,000 square kilometres of mountains, grasslands, forests, waterways and tundra. Although this year's budget is $805 million — a result of an infusion of cash from the federal government's stimulus program — its core funding sits around $690 million.

From presenting to protecting

The mandate of the organization has also undergone significant change over the last 100 years.

Diving into more than just parks

Parks Canada has moved beyond protecting territorial zones and has, since the passage of the National Marine Conservation Act in 2002, moved into overseeing unique waterways.

There are four national marine conservation areas — two in Ontario and one each in B.C. and Quebec.

These protected areas include everything from the seabed to water and any species swimming around there. They also include any wetlands, estuaries or islands in the conservation zones.

"For most of the first half of the 20th century, national parks were very much designed for visitors," said Campbell, who is an associate professor of history at Dalhousie University In Halifax. There was little attention given to environmental concerns.

That started to change, however, in the 1960s, when an emerging critique from the academic community — coupled with a rising environmental conscience in the general public — focused attention on the detrimental impact of human activity, she said.

The shift from presentation to protection gained momentum for several decades before culminating in the Panel on Ecological Integrity of Canada's National Parks in 1998, said Campbell. 

The panel looked at the environmental health of the country's parks and its final report, released in March 2000, said that nearly all of them were facing ecological threats, primarily from pollution and loss of habitat.

For Alison Woodley, national conservation director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, a non-profit organization that works to protect the country's public lands and oceans, this marked a turning point in the management of Parks Canada.

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Parks Canada reintroduced bison to Grasslands National Park as part of its ecological restoration program. (James Page/Parks Canada)

Legislation in the form of Canada's National Parks Act of 2000 soon followed and clearly stated that protecting the ecological integrity of the country's parks was the organization's first priority, Woodley said.

Since that time, Parks Canada has seen some success on that front, Latourelle said.

The organization is in the middle of the largest environmental restoration program in its history — a five-year, $90-million plan that includes the reintroduction of native species or plants and water treatment programs.

"We've been very successful," he said, adding that there is at least one major ecological initiative in half of the country's parks.

For instance, Parks Canada reintroduced black-footed ferrets — a species not seen in Canada since 1937 — into the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.

Engagement with First Nations

Campbell said the relationship with First Nations people has also undergone a drastic shift over the last century, with a greater emphasis placed on co-operation. 

In the early years of Parks Canada, boundaries were simply drawn on a map, regardless of who was living there, she said. Today, however, the organization works with the local populations to determine the confines of new protected areas.

Latourelle said engagement with First Nations people figured prominently in the creation of several new parks, including the Gwaii Haanas Marine Conservation Area in British Columbia in  2010 and the enlargement of the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories in 2009.

The management of many parks, moreover, is jointly controlled by a board that has equal representation from First Nations groups and Parks Canada staff, he said.

Visitors and today's parks

Canada's national parks are there for all people to enjoy but all are not created equally.

They can range in size from the nine-square-kilometre St. Lawrence Islands National Park in Ontario to the massive Wood Buffalo National Park, which covers almost 45,000 square kilometres and stretches across northern Alberta and into the Northwest Territories.

The number of visitors each park receives can vary dramatically, said Andrew Campbell, director general of visitor experience at Parks Canada.

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Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, left, Jim Prentice, former federal environment minister, and Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada, shake hands in January 2010 after signing an agreement to share management of waters around Gwaii Haanas off the west coast of British Columbia. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

Banff National Park recorded 3.13 million visits last season, whereas Tutktut Nogait National Park, located 170 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, gets no more than a dozen in any given year, he said.

Despite these variations, one of the challenges facing Parks Canada is an overall decline in attendance rates.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a steady drop in visitors, from 22.4 million during the 2001 season to 20.7 million last year.

One of the reasons most often cited for the decline, Andrew Campbell said, is a lack of basic outdoors skills, particularly among the increasing number of urban dwellers, something Parks Canada has tried to rectify with its Learn to Camp programs — where families can learn the basics of pitching a tent and cooking over a fire.

He said efforts to boost visitation numbers also involve reaching out to new Canadians, mostly through advertising in ethnic media outlets.

It's also about being more inclusive, Campbell said. This can include creating areas that accommodate large groups of people for cultures that prefer to gather en masse as opposed to the more traditional notion of an isolated campsite for a single nuclear family.

The goal is to have "everybody feel that these treasured places — that either tell our history or show our nature — are ones that every Canadian feels is a part of them," he said.

The role of education

Campbell said the organization has also had to change the way it teaches visitors about its parks and historic sites, focusing more now on general historical trends over specific details and by showing how education and environmental protection can go hand in hand.

Historian Claire Campbell said the latter involves embracing the fact that these areas are rich in human history, particularly with respect to First Nations.

"By not thinking about these parks as pristine wilderness, by recognizing that we have been present in parks for a long time, it's a clearer reminder that there is a human impact, a cumulative human impact," she said.

For Andrew Campbell, as long as visitors take something away with them, Parks Canada has done its job. It doesn't matter if that is some small insight into what life was like in the past or the simple enjoyment of a calm lake.

"Well, you know, if that's what you picked up that night, great," he said. "And if you come back another time and pick something else up, even better."