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National Parks of Canada
Parcs nationaux du Canada (French)

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Mount Chephren and Waterfowl Lake in Banff National Park

First Park Banff National Park, 1885
Smallest Park Georgian Bay Islands National Park, 13.5 km²
Largest Park Wood Buffalo National Park, 44,807 km²
Governing body Parks Canada

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Distribution and location of national parks in Canada

National Parks of Canada are protected natural spaces throughout the country that represent distinct geographical regions of the nation. Under the administration of Parks Canada, a government branch, National Parks allow for public enjoyment without compromising the area for future generations, including the management of wildlife and habitat within the ecosystems of the park. Within Parks Canada’s administration is a wide range of protected areas, encompassing National Historic Sites, National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCA), and National Park Reserves.

Canada’s first national park, located in Banff, was established in 1885. Tourism and commercialization dominated early park development, followed closely by resource extraction. Commodifying the parks for the profit of Canada’s national economy as well as conserving the natural areas for public and future use became an integrated method of park creation. The process of establishing National Parks has included the often forced displacement of indigenous and non-indigenous residents of areas within the proposed park boundaries. The conflicts between the creation of parks and the residents of the area have been negotiated through co-management practices, as Parks Canada acknowledged the importance of community involvement in order to sustain a healthy ecosystem.

A transition towards developing parks as a place of preservation began with the National Parks Act of 1930. This event marked a shift in park management practices. Revised in 1979 under the National Parks Policy, the Act placed greater emphasis on preserving the natural areas in an unimpaired state through ecological integrity and restoration, moving away from development based heavily on profit. Acting as national symbols, Canada's National Parks exist in every province and territory representing a variety of landscapes that mark Canada’s natural heritage.


  • 1885 – Banff National Park established as Canada's first National Park. Originally this park was called Banff Hot Springs Reserve and later the Rocky Mountains National Park.
  • 1908–1912 – Four National Parks established in Alberta and Saskatchewan with a mission akin to national wildlife refuges. All would be abolished by 1947 once their goals were achieved.
  • 1911 – Dominion Parks Branch created, the world's first national park service. Resided in the Department of the Interior. Now known as Parks Canada, the governing body of Canada's National Parks.
  • 1930 – Canada's parliament passes the first National Parks Act, regulating protection of the parks.
  • 1930 – Transfer of resources agreement signed.
  • 1970s - National Parks System Plan devised with an aim to protect a representative sample of each of Canada's 39 natural spaces.
  • 1979 – National Parks policy is revised to make preserving ecological integrity the priority in Canadian Parks, ending the so-called dual-mandate with recreational uses.
  • 1984 – First National Park established through a land claim agreement.
  • 1988 – National Parks Act amended formalizing the principle of ecological integrity in the park system.
  • 1989 – The Endangered Spaces campaign is launched by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and World Wildlife Canada to encourage the completion of the national parks system. The goal of the campaign is to have parks and protected areas which represent each of the country's natural regions.
  • 2011 – To mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of the national parks system, Parks Canada, Primitive Entertainment and Discovery World HD commissioned the National Parks Project to create a series of documentary films about various parks in the system.
  • 2017 - Free National Parks in 2017: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday on 1 July 2017, Parks Canada is offering free admission to national parks and national historic sites for the entire year!

Creation and development

On July 20, 1871, the Crown Colony of British Columbia committed to Confederation with Canada. Under the union’s terms, Canada was to begin construction of a transcontinental railway to connect the Pacific Coast to the eastern provinces. As the Canadian Pacific Railway went underway in 1875 and surveyors began to study the land, the location of the country’s natural resources sprouted further interest. Evidence of minerals quickly introduced the construction of mines and resource exploitation in Canada’s previously untouched wilderness. Exploration led to the discovery of hot springs near Banff, Alberta and in November 1885, the Canadian Government made the springs public property, removing them from the possibility of private ownership and exploitation. This event brought about the beginning of Canada's movement towards preserving land and setting it aside for public usage as National Parks. By the late 1880s, Thomas White, Canada’s Minister of the Interior, responsible for federal land management, Indian affairs, and natural resources extraction, began establishing a legislative motion towards establishing Canada’s first National Park in Banff.

May 1911 marked one of the most significant events in the administration and development of National Parks in Canada as the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act were granted royal assent. This law saw the creation of the first administrative body, the Dominion Parks Branch, now known as Parks Canada, to administer National Parks in Canada. With the Branch in place, the parks system expanded from Banff eastward, combining both use and protection as the foundation to national park management.

The major motives behind the creation of National Parks in Canada were profit and preservation. Inspired by the establishment and success of Yellowstone National Park in the United States, Canada blended the conflicting ideas of preservation and commercialism in order to satisfy its natural resource needs, conservationist views of modern management, a growing public interest in the outdoors and the new popularity of getting back to nature. This growing interest to escape the hustle and bustle of the city brought about ideas of conserving Canada's unspoiled wildernesses by creating public parks. As a country dependent on natural resources, Canada’s National Parks represent an example of a compromise between the demand for profit from the land’s resources and tourism, with the need for preservation and sustainable development.

While conservationist ideas and a common Canadian movement towards getting back to nature were evident in the early development of National Parks in Canada, a greater role was played by chambers of commerce, local governments, promoters of tourism and recreational groups who advocated profit-driven commercial development, while incorporating wildlife preservation when possible. Canada’s National Parks allowed the public an avenue into nature, while also integrating ideas of preserving Canada’s scenic landscape and wildlife populations in an era of development and major resource extraction.

Tourism and commercialization

The integration of public visitation for National Parks in Canada heavily contributed to the beginnings of public constituencies for certain parks. The parks who mobilized with a public constituency tended to prosper at a faster rate. As a tactic to increase the number of people traveling to and through National Parks, members of each constituency surrounding National Parks began to advocate the construction of well-built roads, including the development of the Trans-Canada Highway. As the main highway traveling through the Canadian Rockies, the Trans-Canada Highway has provided accessible visitation and commerce to the area. The highway is designed to provide a heavy flow of traffic, while also including many accessible pull-offs and picnic areas. With a high-frequency of travelers and many destinations to stop, tourism boomed after the Trans-Canada Highway was established. As the highway travels through Banff and the Bow Valley area, it includes amazing views of most of the mountains, and an environment rich in wildlife.

With an increase in tourism to Rocky Mountain Park, growth and prosperity came to the town of Banff. The Banff hot springs were made more accessible after a tunnel was blasted in 1886. Horse-drawn carriages were replaced by busses and taxis, and by the 1960s small cabins had been largely replaced by hotels and motels as the community became geared towards building the national park as a tourist destination. In 1964 the first visitor service centre was established at Lake Louise Station, which included the development of a campground, trailer park, and other attractions. Cave and Basin Springs were forced to rebuild their bathing pools in 1904 and then again in 1912, because of growing public interest in the hot springs. By 1927 campground accommodations at Tunnel Mountain were adapting to include room for trailers as well as tents. Due to increased demand the campground was extended, and by 1969 it was the biggest campground in the national park system. Banff became a year-round recreational centre as the growth of winter sport activities provided added incentive for tourism. The implementation of T-bars and chairlifts on Banff's ski hills helped develop Banff into a ski and winter sports destination.

Shifting value behind park creation and management

Conservation movements

In the late 19th century, Canadians began to change their view of nature and resources from one in which the wilderness was seen as a land of abundance to one where the land became seen as a limited storehouse and opinions started to focus on conservationist ideas.

Created in 1909, the Commission of Conservation became the Canadian forum for conservation issues, acting as an advisory and consultative body used to answer questions related to conservation and better utilization of Canada's natural and human resources. The Commission focused on a concept that maximized future profits through good management in the present. Rather than preserving through non-use, the Commission was concerned with managing resources for long term gain.

Other conservation-minded organizations, like the Alpine Club, had different ideas that focused on the preservation of natural wilderness and opposed any type of development or construction. This movement was successful as the creation of parks solely for preservation purposes, like the bird sanctuary in Point Pelee, began developing. In order to push their views further, this movement, headed by James B. Harkin and Arthur Oliver Wheeler, was forced to argue that divine scenery was itself a source of profit - tourism - in order to push aside what they saw as a far greater avenue of exploitation: resource extraction. By 1930, even the conservation movements within Canada came to understand that the country's National Parks had an entrenched system of profit-based motives.

Ecological integrity

According to Parks Canada, ecological integrity is defined as a state where three elements exist which are non-living elements, living elements and series of ecological functions. By having all three elements, there are healthy ecosystem. Ecosystem in National Parks has been often damaged due to the exploitation of resources, the expansion of tourism and external land use practices outside National Parks. Through Parks Canada realizing the necessity of managing National Parks by human hands to maintain biotic and abiotic components, Parks Canada placed an emphasis on ecological integrity within the National Parks that marked a shift from profit to preservation.

The change in values is derived from the establishment of 1930 National Parks Act that limited use of resource for park management, and in 1979, under revised National Parks Policy, the maintenance of ecological integrity was prioritized for the preservation of National Parks of Canada. In 1988, National Parks Act was amended and the regulation of ecological integrity was embodied. However, due to the conflicting interests of profit and preservation, the maintenance of ecological integrity has progressed slowly.

The big movement on maintenance of ecological integrity has happened since 2001. Canada National Parks Act of 2001 reinforced the necessity of maintenance and restorations of ecological integrity by saving natural resources and ecosystem. It sets new principles for park management plans. Wilderness areas in the Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks have been officially designate land as wilderness in national parks. The boundaries of all communities in national parks are changed and the developments of commerce in their communities are restricted. Profit no longer became priority and initiative for preservation through ecological integrity became increased.

To maintain or restore ecological integrity, ecosystem restorations are implemented in many parks, attempting to back damaged ecosystems to the original healthy state and making them sustainable. For example, Grasslands National park brought back Bison bison for a prairie restoration. The bison grazing patterns help to maintain a variety of prairie biodiversity. In Gwaii Haanas National Park, removing Norway rats, which were accidentally brought in the area, is conducted because they eat eggs, some young and even adults’ seabird, and reducing the seabird’s population. Staffs monitor for the return of rats by trapping and poison baits for recovering native seabird populations.


Through parks policies and operation practices, Parks Canada has recognized the importance of working together with indigenous peoples and other communities to manage parks’ healthy ecosystem within and around National Parks.”

In 1984, Ivvavik National Park was established as a result of an Aboriginal land claim agreement. Now, Ivvavik is managed co-operatively by Parks Canada and the Inuvialuit. Their mutual goals are to protect wild life, keep the ecosystem healthy and protect their cultural resources. In addition, they ensure that the preservation of Inuvialuit traditional way of living, including trapping,hunting and fishing.

Another example is Torngat Mountains National Park. In 2005, Torngat Moungtains national park was established as a result of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. It preserves the aboriginal rights of the Labrador Inuit in Canada which are land,resources and self-government rights. The federal government also signed the Labrador Inuit Park Impacts and Benefits Agreement with Inuit Association. As with the Ivvavik agreement, it ensures that Inuit can continue to use land and resources as their traditional activities and keep their exclusive relationship with the land and ecosystems. In addition, they agreed to manage the park cooperatively. A seven-member co-operative management board will be established to advise the federal minister of Environment for the matters of parks eco-management.

Parks Canada recognized indigenous knowledge and their unique historical and cultural relationship with the lands, and thus Parks Canada started to cooperate with indigenous people for park management.

Adding to the system

Proposed national parks and national park reserves

All existing National Park Reserves are, by definition, proposed National Parks. These include:

  • Gwaii Haanas
  • Gulf Islands
  • Kluane (a portion of the park is designated as a Reserve)
  • Mealy Mountains
  • Mingan Archipelago
  • Naats'ihch'oh
  • Nahanni
  • Pacific Rim
  • Qausuittuq
  • Sable Island

The following areas have been proposed as Parks or Reserves, studied, and discussed among stakeholders:

  • Thaydene Nene, as a Park along the east arm of Great Slave Lake in Northwest Territories
  • Rouge National Urban Park, along the Rouge River in and near Toronto. As the only National Urban Park, the Rouge River Valley would be distinct from National Parks in name, legal status, goals, and overall vision.

In addition, Parks Canada is considering other areas for future National Parks:

  • South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen in British Columbia (as a National Park Reserve)
  • Manitoba Lowlands (north-western Lake Winnipeg)
  • Expanding Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta into the Flathead Valley in British Columbia (as a National Park Reserve)

NMCA and NMCA reserves

National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) are a relatively new creation within the park system. There are currently three NMCAs:

  • Fathom Five National Marine Park, Ontario
  • Lake Superior NMCA, Ontario
  • Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, Quebec

Fathom Five National Marine Park and Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park were created prior to the NMCA concept, and subsequently classified as an NMCA without changing their legal names. NMCAs have a different mandate than their terrestrial counterparts. They are designed for sustainable use, although they usually also contain areas designed to protect ecological integrity.

Similar to National Park Reserves, National Marine Conservation Area Reserves are intended to become full NMCAs, once claims are resolved. There is currently one NMCA Reserve:

  • Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, adjacent to the National Park Reserve of the same name, in British Columbia

Two areas are under consideration as a National Marine Conservation Area or NMCA Reserve:

  • Southern Strait of Georgia NMCA Reserve, in British Columbia, surrounding Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. A feasibility study is underway.
  • Lancaster Sound NMCA, in Nunavut

National landmarks

In addition to National Parks, a National Landmarks program was foreseen in the 1970s and 1980s, but has not yet been established beyond a single property. Landmarks were intended to protect specific natural features considered "outstanding, exceptional, unique, or rare to this country. These natural features would typically be isolated entities and of scientific interest."

To date, only one landmark has been established—Pingo National Landmark—in the Northwest Territories. Another was proposed at the same time (1984)—Nelson Head National Landmark—on the southern tip of Banks Island, also in the NWT. It was to include some 70 square miles (180 km2), 25 miles (40 km) of coastline, and protect the sea cliffs at Nelson Head and Cape Lambton. Durham Heights were to be included, which reach an elevation of 2,450 feet (747 m). The legislation providing for the Landmark required a formal request be made by the Minister of the Environment within 10 years (until 1994). None was ever made.

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