Difficult terrain

How the complex history of Canada’s national parks and historic sites can help us find a better way forward

Imagine sitting under a star-studded sky, enjoying time in nature with friends or family while roasting marshmallows, sharing laughter and stories. Camping in our national parks is a summer tradition many Canadians enjoy, but there’s a darker history that permeates our parks.

Millions of people each year visit the 47 national parks and 171 national historic sites managed by Parks Canada. From coast to coast to coast, they come to see everything from the rugged trails in Newfoundland, to the waving Prairie grasslands and the snow-capped mountain peaks in B.C. and Alberta.

One of Parks Canada’s mandates is conservation — protecting the unique landscapes and diverse species. People are encouraged to visit the parks to gain an appreciation for the country’s natural beauty and experience examples of cultural heritage.

It’s less likely they come for a history lesson about the displacement and forced labour that helped forge those parks and the exclusion that kept others out.


But that’s the real story beneath the idyllic allure of our parks — a complex tension, where cherished landscapes that form an integral part of the country’s identity also have a discomforting past. Now, a transformative shift is underway as Canadians confront this difficult history and work toward a future that celebrates diverse narratives and protects the legacy of these treasured spaces.

Listen to the CBC Radio special Camp Canada:

Illustration of three bison on grass against a church background

Land back to Batoche

On a sunny summer day, Michelle Leclair looks out over the rolling green hills banking the South Saskatchewan river at the national historic site of Batoche in central Saskatchewan.

Leclair, who is the vice-president of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, feels proud to be from this area of the province that connects her to a strong line of Métis people.

But standing here also makes her emotional. This is where Métis people were displaced and had their cultural practices disrupted.

A woman with long, blond hair wears dark-framed glasses, beaded earrings and a white shirt as she stands in a green field under a blue sky.
Michelle Leclair, the vice-president of Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, says Batoche is a special place that connects her to her Métis culture. (Candice Lipski/CBC)

In 1885, the last major battle of the Northwest Resistance between Canadian authorities and Métis and First Nation allies took place on this land under the leadership of Louis Riel.

Riel was a politician who helped found the province of Manitoba. He fought to defend Métis rights but was charged with treason and hanged in Regina in November 1885.

“People were afraid after the battle, and so they dispersed,” said LeClair.

Even today, she says she still feels the effects of the conflict deeply.

“It was a very, very dark time for people in 1885,” said Leclair. “We were scared off the land, pushed off the land.”

Then, in 1923, the government of Canada decided to formally recognize Batoche as a national historic site managed by Parks Canada. Thousands of people visit each year.

Leclair said she questions what and who the government was planning to honour at the historic site, considering how Métis people were mistreated by the government. “What was the government’s intention at that time in 1923?” she asked.

A black-and-white historic photo shows smoke billowing from a cannon as a horse stands nearby.
The guns of 'A' Battery, a regiment of the Canadian Artillery, bombard the Métis and their First Nation allies in Batoche on May 9, 1885, during the Northwest Resistance. (James Peters/National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)
A black-and-white historic photo shows a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat in silhouette next to a white tent as uniformed guards watch him.
Louis Riel, one of the leaders of the resistance, is seen on May 16, 1885, after being taken prisoner, in the camp of Major-General F.D. Middleton in Batoche. (James Peters/National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

Nearly 100 years later, Métis people are reclaiming this land as their own.

Following a historic agreement with the federal government in 2022, 690 hectares of land has been transferred back to Métis people. It will be co-managed by Métis Nation-Saskatchewan and Parks Canada.

“It means everything for us,” said LeClair.

“For us to have that back makes us no longer landless people.”

Forced labour

Giving land back to Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit people is rare, but the history of displacing people to create a network of national parks is not.

“These were places that were occupied for centuries, if not millennia by First Nations people and these people were displaced from national parks to make room for tourists,” said Bill Waiser, a Saskatchewan historian and the author of Park Prisoners: The Untold Stories of Western Canada’s National Parks.

“These were supposed to be national playgrounds for the Canadian public, and they didn’t want a resident Indigenous population living there.”

According to Waiser, to create the parks, facilities and roads needed to be built, and that required a large labour force.

So the government forced people to work. During the First World War, people from Austria-Hungary were considered enemy aliens and the federal government passed laws allowing them to be surveilled and, in some cases, sent to internment camps set up in four of Canada’s national parks.

Many cleared land or constructed roads in parks such as Banff and Jasper in Alberta and Mount Revelstoke and Yoho in B.C.

It’s a part of history that Parks Canada has marked with an exhibit at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff National Park.

“The conditions were, quite frankly, terrible for them. They were there essentially against their will, and that’s the irony,” said Waiser.

“These are supposed to be special places where people can find solace, relaxation. And yet, in the early 20th century, many of the facilities and roads were built by people there against their will.”

Unemployed men were also sent to work during the Great Depression, then again during the Second World War. Conscientious objectors and Nazi prisoners of war were placed in distant work camps.

A black-and-white historic image shows Japanese men wearing hats and work clothes work to saw sections of a giant tree trunk.
Japanese internees saw logs in 1943 to provide lumber and firewood for the Japanese internment camp at Tashme, B.C.
A black-and-white historic image shows about a dozen men in hats and work clothes walking away from a fenced in area.
Prisoners of war walk out of a barbed wire enclosure at the Castle Mountain internment camp in Banff, Alta., in 1915.
Men wearing work clothes and hats hold shovels as they stand on a gravel road while uniformed guards holding rifles look on.
Guards from the 103rd Regiment, Calgary Rifles, watch over internees from the Castle Mountain internment camp doing road work in Banff National Park in 1915.
Dozens of small, wood shacks sit along dusty dirt roads at the foot of a mountain.
A B.C. internment camp where Japanese-Canadians were taken during the Second World War is seen in June 1945.

During this period, Japanese people and Japanese Canadians were also forcibly relocated, and many men were separated from their families and put to work in highway-building camps, including in Jasper National Park.

“I think we need to have a full understanding of the past,” said Waiser.

“We need to know what happened and we need to know why. I think that history provides a perspective on the past that gives us the tools … to deal with the challenges we face today.”

Illustration of hikers approaching a mountain. The text over top reads Banff.

Taking up space

While some were forced to work in our national parks, others were excluded.

In 1960, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were invited to join a friend on a trip to New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park.

However, before the trip could take place, the owner of the chalet in the park where they were supposed to stay wrote to the man who invited King, telling him “it would be better not to accommodate your friends” lest it upset other tourists from the U.S.

The Network in Canadian History and Environment, a Canadian-based confederation of researchers and educators exploring the historical context of environmental matters, noted in an online series that employees in Banff National Park were told to encourage Black and Chinese patrons to use hot spring pools at off peak times — in the early morning or late evening — to avoid upsetting other guests.

Shyrai Sutherland says it’s stories like this that continue to make people feel Canada’s national parks aren’t for them and “speak to the concerns around safety for Black and Black LGBT people.”

A Black woman with her hair in long, green braids, wearing a tank top, shorts, sunglasses and hiking boots, stands atop a large rock holding her hands in the air giving the victory sign against a backdrop of picturesque mountains, trees and lakes.
Shyrai Sutherland, the founder of Black Canadian Hikers, poses on the summit of The Crack trail in Ontario's Killarney Provincial Park. (Sammi Pun/@OhSoPunny)

During a 10 month solo trip to the Canadian Rockies, Sutherland noticed a striking lack of diversity in national parks like Banff.

“I never really saw hikers who looked like me outside soaking up all the beauty that’s out there on the trails.”

After returning to the Greater Toronto Area, Sutherland continued to think about how to make Canada’s parks more accessible and welcoming.

“We need to have more people who look like us actually sitting at the tables and being a part of those decision-making processes so that it is more inclusive,” she said.

A group of about 10 Black people use hiking poles to hike up a dirt path in a leafy, green forest.
A group from Black Canadian Hikers explores the Scotsdale Farm and Milne Dam Conservation area in August 2021.
Two Black women, one with her hair in a wrap, examine the bark of a tree in a forested area.
Sutherland formed Black Canadian Hikers after returning to Ontario following a trip to the Canadian Rockies where she realized she didn't see people who looked like her out on the trails in national parks like Banff. Here, two hikers stopped to connect with nature while hiking the Mono Cliffs area of the Bruce Trail, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
A group of people pose for a photo in a leafy green forest clearing.
Black Canadian Hikers recently partnered with the Black Men's Therapy Fund and Diverse Nature Collective to offer this Black Men Healing In Nature hike along the Hinder Property trail in North York in May 2023.
A Black person wearing an orange backpack looks at the green trail ahead.
A hiker watches the trail ahead during a Black Canadian Hikers group hike at Mono Cliffs. Sutherland says it's important for the group to be out on the trails and taking up space in nature.

During the pandemic, she started Black Canadian Hikers, an informal group of people who hike trails in Ontario.

“It’s like, ‘Yes, we’re out here. We’re taking up space here,’ ” she said.

“There’s a sense of bond and deeper connection and visibility that other people who look like us are out there on those trails. It’s empowering.”

Illustration of a rainbow over a lake with rocks in the foreground. The text reads Kejimkujik

‘Nature doesn’t judge’

Interpreter Marilyse Theriault stands with her feet on a rainbow crosswalk that connects two trails in Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, about 200 kilometres southwest of Halifax.

According to Theriault, the crosswalk, which was installed in April 2021, is a way to welcome LGBTQ people to Kejimkujik.

It’s surrounded by red maple, white pines and blue spruce and connects the park’s Ukme’k Trail and the Mersey River Trail.

A crosswalk painted with the colours of the rainbow stretches across a roadway bracketed by pine trees under a bright red and orange sky at sunset.
The rainbow crosswalk in Nova Scotia's Kejimkujik National Park connects the Ukme’k Trail with the Mersey River Trail. (Marilyse Theriault)

“I feel like in nature, it kind of represents that concept that everyone has their place, all the trees and flora and fauna, and I think we should use this model in our day to day life,” Theriault said.

The Nova Scotia park also installed gender neutral washrooms in 2020 and received a Rainbow Registered designation in spring 2023 from a national organization recognizing businesses that are inclusive of LGBTQ2 people.

For Amanda Boudreau, these initiatives are part of the reason she wanted to camp in the park this season and work in the visitor centre.

“This place really changed my life, honestly,” said Boudreau, who was struggling with self-acceptance when a friend in the queer community encouraged her to apply at the park.

“When I came here, it just felt so easy,” she said. “I felt like I was in the right place, around the right kind of people that didn’t care about who I love or do not love.”

A man wearing reflective pants and a vest uses a spray gun to paint a green stripe in a rainbow crosswalk.
A contractor paints a section of the rainbow crosswalk in Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site in April 2021.
A young smiling woman wearing cargo pants and a green shirt leans on the hood of a silver car that has a rainbow licence plate.
Amanda Boudreau says coming to work at Kejimkujik's visitor centre helped her feel more confident and comfortable with her sexuality and she now has no problem driving around the park with her rainbow licence plate.
Four people wearing hiking clothes and carrying backpacks use a rainbow crosswalk.
Boudreau, far left, and her friends use the rainbow crosswalk.
A woman with shoulder-length curly brown hair wearing a green shirt smiles and stands in front of a rainbow crosswalk.
Kejimkujik interpreter Marilyse Theriault says the rainbow crosswalk is a good reminder that in nature, everything has its place and we should use that as a model in our day-to-day lives.

Now, Boudreau feels she can confidently drive around the park with her rainbow licence plate. To her, national parks are inherently inclusive and we need to keep them that way.

“Nature doesn’t judge,” she said. “Who we are, who we love, what gender we might be, what colour we might be — nature doesn’t care about that.”

Illustration of a lighthouse on a cliff highlighting the words Gros Morne with waves crashing on the rocks below.

‘Better for everyone’

At Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, efforts toward inclusivity sometimes begin before visitors even arrive.

When people book a stay at the park’s cabin built to accommodate people who are autistic, staff share an outreach package that lets visitors know what to expect.

Parks Canada worked with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Autism Involves Me (AIM) and Autism Canada to create features in the cabin that provide a sense of safety and security for guests who may struggle with surprises or different sensations.

One cabin, in a cluster of six nestled in the Berry Hill campground, has unique features such as tinted windows to reduce the amount of light that shines in and a lock at the very top of the door to help prevent children and adults who are neuro-divergent from wandering.

Several small cabins are nestled into groves of pine trees framed by water and gently sloping mountains.
The rustic cabins at the Berry Hill campground in Gros Morne National Park offer visitors with special needs a place to stay.
The wooden interior of a rustic cabin with room-darkening curtains drawn over a window.
One of the six cabins is specially equipped for guests with sensory difficulties, including window coverings that reduce the amount of light.
A smiling man with grey hair and a moustache takes a selfie in front of a wooden cabin.
Rob Hingston, the park's visitor experience and product development officer, says when they find solutions that are inclusive, they often turn out to be better for everyone.
Colourful toys are arranged on a wood table.
The cabins also feature an array of sensory toys. When the cabin is booked, parks staff reach out with a special welcome package to explain to guests what they can expect when they arrive.

Joan Chaisson, co-founder of AIM in Port aux Basques, N.L., said these extra measures help to make it a safe and enjoyable experience for families.

“The parents would be able to relax for once, because these parents never relax. They’re always on alert for their children, especially if their children are runners,” she said.

Rob Hingston, the visitor experience and product development officer with Gros Morne, said there’s a realization that Parks Canada hasn’t always serviced all Canadians and that opportunities to make facilities more accessible is a move in the right direction.

“It feels good to be able to be more inclusive,” he said. “A lot of times we end up with solutions that are better for everyone.”

A curving river reflecting white clouds in a blue sky cuts through rolling green prairie fields.
The South Saskatchewan River near Batoche is seen via drone. Parks Canada says it's working with Indigenous and Métis groups to co-manage resources and create Indigenous tourism opportunities. (Cory Herperger/CBC)

A hopeful future

Back in Batoche, as Michelle LeClair takes in the view of the rolling green hills at the national historic site, she sees a future where Métis people are connected to their culture and the land.

Later this year, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan plans to introduce a group of bison that will be transferred from Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan to Batoche in partnership with Parks Canada.

“Bison are keystone animals,” LeClair said. “The wonderful thing about that” is returning them to the area will also benefit the health of the land.

Four bison run on the prairie.
Bison roam in Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park. Soon, a group of bison from that park will be transferred to Batoche, something LeClair says will help revitalize the land. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

According to Parks Canada, a number of initiatives are underway across Canada to co-manage land, ice and water traditionally used by Indigenous people. Parks Canada says it is also using Indigenous knowledge in conservation efforts and working to create Indigenous tourism opportunities.

There’s also a youth lodge at the Batoche festival site that’s currently under construction. It will host the Riel Scouts program for those aged five to 18, helping connect young Métis citizens to their culture and language.

“The return of the land is revitalizing. It’s so much more than just having land and this beautiful place to look at. It’s really bringing culture back to our community and that’s good for Saskatchewan, it’s good for the Métis community,” said LeClair.

“It’s good for the country.”

Art and Graphics by: Ben Shannon | Editing by: Tanis Fowler | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Brandie Weikle | Audio Documentary: Leisha Grebinski and Candice Lipski