Great outdoors? No thanks, we’re Canadian

July 13, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 07/07/10 national_parks

They’re the “the jewels of our country,” so says Environment Minister Jim Prentice. But we seem to care about our national parks less and less.

Instead, we prefer the Great Indoors, where we are in complete control and out of the sunlight. No wonder so many of us are starting to look like that pale, British vampire from the Twilight movies, except without the cheekbones that make women melt.

When it comes to our national parks, more and more of us are just choosing to stay home, according to a recent report in the Globe and Mail. There were 11.9 million visits to Canada’s national parks last year, down from 15.3 million in 1995.

In the U.S., meanwhile, they’re crazy about their national parks. Americans logged some 285.5 million visits to their parks last year, or about one per citizen.

There are plenty of theories on why Canadians are staying home instead of getting out into these great protected natural spaces. Some blame the high cost of gasoline, which has an incredibly reliable way of rising every long weekend.

Others say it’s a cultural thing, suggesting new immigrants don’t have the same connection to the outdoors that Canadians might have had decades ago. Or it’s that we’ve basically become a nation of city dwellers, far too urbanized to get back to nature.

I think we’ve just gotten too used to being comfortable. All. The. Time. We’ve gone so soft we don’t like the slightest thing out of our comfort zone. The idea of camping on a hard piece of ground, out in the elements, and cooking our own meals over a fire just doesn’t hold much appeal to us, hiding away in our air-conditioned, big screened, energy-guzzling homes.

We want cool, purified air surrounding us at all moments – in the car, at work, in our bedrooms. We don’t want to see or hear a single mosquito. Raccoons and deer are fine, as long as they’re behind the glass at the zoo, or dead at the side of the road.

Why go into the wild, when there’s special programs on TV that have nature scenes in high definition?

As Canadians, we love that image of ourselves as rugged, axe-totting lumberjacks who carved this land out of sheer wilderness. But the truth is we’re much more domesticated than that. We like our nature in digestible, easy to consume formats that we can turn off at our leisure.

We like to meet wilderness the same way Queen Elizabeth likes to meet most Canadians – at a safe distance, in short bursts that last a few minutes, and comfortably close enough to an air-conditioned car.

Yet we have some of the most beautiful, rugged national parks on Earth. And most of us will never, ever see them. We’ve created massive parks in the territories that no one visits. Ivvavik park in northern Yukon saw 136 visitors last year; only 26 people went to Aulavik in the Northwest Territories.

Parks Canada is trying to get more Canadians to realize how lucky we are to have these places. They’ve waived admission fees on July 1 and July 17. They’ve spent some $300 million sprucing up old camp sites and improving park infrastructure, trying to draw Canadians back.

Some of this spending may miss the point. You can pretty up our parks, but the real draw should be the wilderness itself, not new signs or fresh coats of paint.

But most of us will never know the difference, anyway.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

One Response to Great outdoors? No thanks, we’re Canadian

  1. Tyler Phillips on July 13, 2010 at 8:32 am


    I recently read your column appearing in the Guelph Mercury.

    I thought you had some good points, but the one angle you didn’t explore is the proximity of National Parks vs. Provincial Parks. Southern Ontario has by far the largest number of Canadians (approx. 10 million), yet very few National Parks are within any sort of reasonable driving distance. Ontario Parks on the other hand offers several options all within a few hours’ driving distance, Algonquin being the most notable. It would be interesting to see some numbers for park visits to Ontario Parks. My experience in the past few years has been extremely busy parks with very few if any campsites available. If the federal government truly wants Canadians visiting National Parks, perhaps they should establish a few parks closer to the majority of Canadians, in Southern Ontario. Better yet, take over operations of some provincial parks and save our cash-strapped province some money.

    Tyler Phillips
    Elora, ON

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