Q & A: Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle

Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle says the organization has become a global leader in terms of ecological restoration and its engagement with First Nations.
Parks Canada has reintroduced bison into Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan as part of its ecological restoration efforts. (Parks Canada)

Parks Canada is celebrating its 100th anniversary on July 16 with Parks Day, a massive, country-wide party meant to highlight the scope and history of this treasured organization.

According to CEO Alan Latourelle, both the size and the mandate of the organization have changed drastically over the last century.

It has also become international leader in terms of ecological management and its engagement with First Nations groups, he said.

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Latourelle was appointed CEO in 2002, and since then, he has overseen the creation or expansion of a number of parks, including the Gwaii Hanaas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve in British Columbia and the Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador. He served previously as the organization's director general of Western Canada and its chief administrative officer.

In an interview with CBC News, he discussed some of Parks Canada's notable achievements as well as some of its future challenges.

Alan Latourelle was appointed CEO of Parks Canada in 2002. (Parks Canada)

CBC News: Looking back on the history of Parks Canada, what has been the biggest or most significant change?

Alan Latourelle:I think the expansion of the system. When we started, we only had 10 or 12 national parks, but now we truly have a national parks system spread right across Canada.

For example, just in the last five years alone we've signed agreements or legislated a [48 per cent expansion] of our waters or land masses. That is a significant accomplishment.

Since 2000, protecting — and in some cases restoring — the ecological integrity in parks has been your first priority. What progress has been made on that front?

Along with bison, Parks Canada has also reintroduced black-footed ferrets in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. (Mike Lockhart/Parks Canada)

We've been very successful. We have the largest ecological restoration initiative in the history of Parks Canada that is currently going on. We're investing $90 million over five years and we've already achieved significant accomplishments. For example, we've reintroduced the bison into Grasslands National Park and we reintroduced a black-footed ferret that had been gone for 70 years in partnership with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the Calgary Zoo and the Toronto Zoo.

In 50 per cent of our national parks, as we speak, we have major ecological restoration initiatives that are really showing the way internationally in terms of leadership. The work that we've put into our restoration ecological guidelines have now been adopted internationally. 

Is there a tension in the dual mandate to both protect and present?

There has always been. Again, I think this is something that we've become international leaders in, managing these tensions.

In the past, a lot of the dialogue was about use versus conservation. But what we're seeing is that where we've had real success is where we've integrated both; where we've achieved ecological gains and improved visitor experiences.

How has the engagement with First Nations people changed over the years?

This has been one of the most fundamental changes at Parks Canada that I've experienced.

We're seeing that, for example in northern Canada, we have co-operative management bodies that have equal representation from aboriginal peoples and Parks Canada. But also, we've made a significant change within our own organization, close to eight per cent of our team members in Parks Canada are of aboriginal descent and 12 per cent of our executives.

So we've invested in terms of our recruitment but we've also invested significantly with our time and effort in relationship-building. A good practical example of that is the most recently announced marine park, the Gwaii Haanas Conservation Area Reserve, which is a true partnership between the Haida nation, Parks Canada as well as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. We have a co-operative management body and most of our team members, including our superintendent, are Haida.

This shows the relationship that we've developed with aboriginal people and the trust that's been developed between aboriginal people and Parks Canada.

How important is it to reach out to new or urban Canadians?

It's part of our key strategy. What we're seeing over the last decade is with the changing face of Canada — and a lot more urban Canadians — there are less people coming out to our parks. What we're trying to do is to bring our parks to where they live so they can get to, in this case, learn to camp and then connect them to our parks and historic sites.

Oftentimes when people have that first experience with Parks Canada, they become passionate supporters of our parks.

What are some of the challenges facing Parks Canada in the years to come?

I think as we move forward, continuing to be vigilant on our protection mandate and completing our national parks system [which aims to have one national park in each of the country's 39 geographic regions].

The second challenge is how to connect more Canadians to our parks and sites. We've seen some decline over the last decade with changing demographics and leisure patterns — so how to connect [Canadians] to these exceptional treasures.

Thirdly, how to bring parks and sites to Canadians and where they live, [with initiatives like the Learn to Camp programs].

Has the expansion of park system created any pressure in terms of funding?

The federal government has consistently taken the position that the creation of new parks or the expansion of the system is funded separately. They've added to our budget. So we don't, for example, relocate money from existing parks to fund the creation of new parks and dilute the overall program. So there has been a strong government commitment.

For example, when I became CEO of Parks Canada in 2002, our budget was $395 million. It's now at $690 million.