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The Question of Aboriginal Harvesting in Canada’s National Parks

Publié le 1 septembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Aboriginal people have harvested throughout North America for thousands of years. National parks, which have long been places of refuge for stressed ecosystems, have normally prohibited such traditional practices. Concurrent developments in Aboriginal rights and ecological thinking have put pressure on parks to allow Aboriginal harvesting. What does this mean both for national parks and Aboriginal people?

Bio: Nathan is a national park warden and has conducted research on a wide variety of Aboriginal-related issues.

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Sa’ d Khorsid, Grass 01, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Archaeological projects, ecological studies, and firsthand accounts from harvesters themselves all indicate that Aboriginal people in North America actively harvested plants, fish, and wildlife from the lands and waters now under the jurisdiction of national parks (1,2,3). It is only during the last century that Aboriginal harvesting on lands now under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada have become virtually nonexistent, largely a result of conservationist ideologies combined with past governmental attempts to subjugate and assimilate Aboriginal people (4). More recently, a growing respect for potential Aboriginal rights to the land, due to various court decisions, legislation, and the modern treaty process (5), has met with an evolution in conservationist thinking that recognizes the role of humans – especially indigenous groups – in the landscape. This has heightened pressure on Parks Canada to increase the opportunities for traditional harvest within Canada’s national parks (6).

While the return of Aboriginal harvest to national parks is an important step forward for park management and the recognition of asserted Aboriginal rights, there has been little exploration of its potential impacts (7). The introduction of Aboriginal harvesting represents a clash of mandates and interests: national parks have long been a bastion for conservation and are mandated to maintain ecological integrity, while Aboriginal groups strive to assert their rights to practice traditions that are centuries old and important for them as a people. But how will harvesting influence the function and mandate of our national parks, and how will it affect Aboriginal people?

The First National Parks: Preservation and Aboriginal Exclusion

The origins of the national park can be traced back to George Catlin, the artist-cum-explorer who, in 1832, called for the creation of a “nation’s park” to protect the wild animals of the plains and the traditional life of the American Indian (8). Forty years later, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park was created in the United States, and Canada followed suit with the creation of Rocky Mountain Park in 1885 (9). The creation of national parks was in one respect an attempt by early preservationists to protect monumental examples of wild America thought to be “untrodden by man” (10). Yet, these national parks were hardly the unoccupied lands they were envisioned to be; both Yellowstone and Banff National Park had already been occupied by Aboriginal people for thousands of years (11). The last Aboriginal inhabitants were forced out of Yellowstone by 1879 (12), while Banff National Park was established on lands ceded by the Siksika and Nakoda tribes to the Crown in 1878 (13).

Historically, the very concept of a “national park” was often diametrically opposed to the presence of people, including Aboriginal people, much less their traditional pursuits. Many were forcibly removed from areas that became part of a national park (14), and others were encouraged to sell or trade their reserves for lands outside the national park (15), thereby both creating the untrammelled landscape originally envisioned for national parks and alienating its original inhabitants. Aboriginal activities, especially harvesting, were largely prohibited in national parks, and their involvement remained at a minimum until the Calder court case (16) initiated by the Nisga’a in 1967 (17).

Recognizing Aboriginal Rights

The latter half of the 20th century saw a growing recognition of the rights of Aboriginal people in Canada, and a concurrent development in the ecological mindset of parks management. Calder was a watershed moment for Aboriginal rights, and subsequent court cases (18) further acknowledged the potential for Aboriginal rights, as well as the right to traditional harvest. The Constitution Act, 1982, entrenched the concept of Aboriginal rights and title in the highest law of the land, a huge step forward that served to usher in a new era of Aboriginal-Canadian relations.

During the same period, conservationist thinking began to view human presence in the landscape as a critical part of the ecosystem rather than a detriment (19). Combined with further developments in ecosystem-based management, the management of Canada’s national parks moved beyond a policy of preservation to a focus on ecological integrity (20). These advancements, in addition to the growing recognition of asserted Aboriginal rights, led Parks Canada to introduce the concept of “national park reserves” in 1972 (21). Park reserves recognize that Aboriginal rights may still exist and, as such, still allow for the continuance of traditional harvesting (22). Prior to 1972, any harvesting that occurred was generally prohibited and counter to the preservation credo of national parks at the time.

The passing of the Constitution Act, 1982 however, created some discrepancies in the ability of Aboriginal people to exercise their rights within national parks. Parks Canada’s position is that legislation used to establish national parks prior to 1982 extinguishes any Aboriginal or treaty rights with regards to those parks. Consequently, of the forty national parks and park reserves in Canada, harvesting as an Aboriginal or treaty right takes place in twenty of them — primarily in parks and park reserves established after 1982 or those established in northern Canada under comprehensive land claims (23).

The continued recognition of Aboriginal rights and title in the courts and the pursuance of Aboriginal land claims and treaties have generated a growing interest to increase the level of Aboriginal harvesting in national parks. Modern treaties have become one method of legitimizing harvesting rights in national parks (24); however, there has been little study of the impact that such rights will have on national parks or Aboriginal people.

The Impacts and Benefits of Harvesting in National Parks

National parks are a critical part of biological conservation in Canada, protecting over 250,000 km2 from development (25). More than 160 listed species at risk can be found in national parks — roughly one-third of all species classified at risk in Canada (26). Because of high levels of development, fragmentation, and introduced species, many of the ecosystems and species within the parks are outside their natural limits and would benefit from the harvesting of hyper-abundant and introduced species (27). Yet, there may be other extremely sensitive or at-risk species and ecosystems intermixed with these harvestable species. Harvesting in such conditions in light of additional stressors from both within (e.g. visitor use) and without (e.g. climate change) could cause detrimental impacts to certain species. Furthermore, there may be certain species used for traditional purposes that are already at risk; their harvesting would only increase the level of risk they already face.

In addition to concerns regarding conservation, many national parks experience high visitor use and/or are in close proximity to private, farm, or industrial lands, even residential areas. Over 13 million Canadians visited national parks in 2006-07 (28), and over one-third of all national parks either have towns within them or are situated adjacent to urban areas. The conduct of certain traditional harvesting activities in the presence of such human use could potentially lead to dangerous situations. For example, over 50,000 people visit the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve annually, a small national park within the heavily populated southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia (29). The harvesting of deer with high-powered rifles raises significant public safety concerns given the neighbouring private residences and high levels of visitor use.

Not all types of traditional harvesting pose concerns for public safety, however, and may even offer visitors opportunities to enhance their understanding of Aboriginal culture, while fostering an appreciation for traditional harvesting. Visitors who can see, touch, and learn about the traditional history and uses of butter clams or bull kelp would be provided with an experience to remember for years to come. But such visitor experiences are a two-edged sword. Public sentiment may initially be against opening parks to traditional harvesting, areas often envisioned as refuge for animals. Public support may deteriorate further if traditional harvests include charismatic species such as grizzly bears or endangered species.

Furthermore, harvesting resonates deeply for Aboriginal people and their communities. It provides a direct connection to tradition, not only through the foods and medicines that such acts can provide but also through the act itself. Harvesting can foster the sharing of traditional knowledge and culture among generations, and it can help revitalize traditional ties to the land, much to the benefit of future generations. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this act, whose benefits spread beyond the initial provision of sustenance to provide “food security, alternatives to market-based poverty, [and] self-affirmation in valued cultural life-ways” (30).

Ways Forward

Aboriginal people throughout Canada with historical ties to land within national parks want to assert their rights to harvest plants and wildlife from within them. In some national parks and park reserves, they are already asserting these rights. This does not mean that Aboriginal people are out recklessly harvesting plants and wildlife without regard for the safety of others or the ecosystem. Albeit, modern influences and economic hardship can lead to negative impacts on the environment for any society; however, Aboriginal people tend to have a long-standing relationship with the ecosystems they inhabit, one that is much more akin to a spiritual or familial connection. Strong cultural mores and rules often effectively overcome individual greed. Such a relationship fosters inherent respect for the environment, and promotes an ethic that looks to both the needs of the future and the needs of the past.

In light of the many complexities and threats faced by national parks, some form of harvest management needs to be implemented in order to adequately conserve the ecological integrity of the region. Planning must be done in cooperation with interested Aboriginal groups and at a pace comfortable for all parties. This will help to avoid a situation in which Aboriginal people continue to assert their rights, but in a combative rather than cooperative context, to the detriment of all interested parties and the ecological integrity of the parks. This planning will vary from park to park, and will be based on a variety of factors, including: the number of groups involved, their cultural perspectives, and their resource/harvest needs; concerns regarding public safety, public health, and conservation; and the status of the ecosystems, the potentially harvestable species and their associated habitats. The type and level of harvest planning may vary from a simple protocol or set of guidelines that identify how groups will work together and how harvest should take place, to a complete harvest management plan that covers all aspects of harvest and monitoring, and may cover such topics as permits and quotas.


Aboriginal harvesting is the point at which the history and mandate of national parks comes into contact with the assertion of Aboriginal rights. Parks have historically dedicated themselves to conservation, which included the prohibition of harvesting. Yet for Aboriginal people, harvesting is an integral part of their culture. Consequently: “the security of Aboriginal harvesting rights is an especially sensitive interest that impinges upon traditional values and contemporary management practices” (31). It is only in recent history that there has been any impetus towards reviving the presence of Aboriginal people in Canada’s national parks. As a result, through the increased recognition of Aboriginal rights, the settlement of comprehensive land claims in northern Canada, and the development of modern-day treaties in BC, Canada has largely become a pioneer regarding the presence of Aboriginal harvesting in national parks. Actions that are undertaken in Canada’s national parks, whether through park-wide policy, individual park agreements, or in court, will have implications for other parks throughout the world, where other Indigenous people are struggling to assert the harvesting rights they historically held for thousands of generations.


(1) Fedje, D.W., Wigen, R.J., Mackie, Q., Lake, C.R., and Sumpter, I.D. “Preliminary Results from Investigations at Kilgii Gwaay: an Early Holocene Archaeological Site on Ellen Island, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. » Canadian Journal of Archaeology 25 (1968): 98-120.
(2) Berkes, F., Colding, J., and Folke, C. “Rediscovery of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as Adaptive Management.” Ecological Applications 10.5 (2000): 1251-1262.
(3) Carlson, K.T. Ed. A Stó:lo-Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
(4) Similar to what happened to American Indians in the United States — see Spence, M. “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Yosemite Indians and the National Park Ideal.” The Pacific Historical Review 65.1 (1996): 27-59; Keller, R.H. and Turek, M.F. American Indian and National Parks. Phoenix, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1996.
(5) The present-day BC Treaty process has codified the importance of traditional Aboriginal harvesting practices. Modern treaties such as the Tsawwassen Final Agreement and the Maa-nulth Final Agreement entrench the right of Aboriginal people to harvest within a national park.
(6) Currently, harvesting in Canada’s national parks is limited largely to parks in northern Canada, which were established through comprehensive land claims agreements. Some harvesting opportunities are permitted in southern parks, but such opportunities are limited to certain parks and generally occur infrequently.
(7) The development of traditional harvest planning in parks is a relatively new concept, one that other agencies outside of Canada are struggling with; few, if any, have developed any sort of harvesting agreement or strategy.
(8) Nash, R. “The American Invention of National Parks.” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 726-735.
(9) Similar prevailing social values as to those in the U.S., a desire to protect sites of significant beauty, and an interest in exploiting the benefits of the newly discovered hot springs led to the creation of Canada’s first national park, which later became Banff National Park in 1930.
( 0) Marsh, G.P. Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1965.
( 1) Spence, M.D. Dispossessing the Wilderness. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1999; Fedje, D.W. “Early Human Presence in Banff National Park, Alberta.” In Early Human History of British Columbia. Eds. Carlson, R.L., Dalla Bona, I. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1995.
( 2) See Spence, M.D. Dispossessing the Wilderness. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1999.
( 3) Peepre, J., Dearden, P. “The Role of Aboriginal Peoples.” In Parks and Protected Areas in Canada. Eds. Dearden, P., Rollins, R. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002.
( 4) Morrison, J. “Aboriginal Interests.” In Protecting Canada’s Endangered Spaces: An Owner’s Manual. Ed. Hummel, M. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 1995. It is also important to note that non-Aboriginal people were also removed from certain national park lands.
( 5) Morrison, J. “Aboriginal Interests.” In Protecting Canada’s Endangered Spaces: An Owner’s Manual. Ed. Hummel, M. Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 1995.
(16) Calder v. B.C. (Attorney General) [1973] 1 S.C.R. 313. The Calder case opened the door for contemporary land-claim negotiations in areas where treaties were nonexistent, including the northern territories, BC, and Quebec.
( 7) Although the people were banished, this did not prevent national parks from later highlighting the historical story of Aboriginal people and culture in national parks while glossing over their role in the halting of such cultural practices. As Burnham points out, “Indian past is usually honoured at the expense of Indian country.” Burnham, P. Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and National Parks. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000.
( 8) Delgamuukw v. British Columbia [1997] 3 S.C.R. 771; R. v. Sparrow [1990] 1 S.C.R. 1075; R. v. Marshall; R. v. Bernard, 2005 SCC 43, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 220; R. v. Powley, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 207, 2003 SCC 43
( 9) Meffe, G.K., and Carroll, C.R. Eds. Principles of Conservation Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1997.
(20) Parks Canada’s 1994 Guiding Principles and Operational Policies officially moved the Agency in a direction of ecosystem-based management, focusing on the conservation of ecological integrity as the primary goal of national parks. Ecological integrity is defined in this document as “a condition where the structure and function of an ecosystem are unimpaired by stresses induced by human activity and are likely to persist”.
(2 ) Three national park reserves were created in 1972: Kluane, Nahanni, and Auyuittuq.
(22) The Canada National Parks Act (CNPA), s.4.2, describes a park reserve as “an area or a portion of an area proposed for a park [that] is subject to a claim in respect of aboriginal rights and has been accepted for negotiation by the Government of Canada.”
(23) Of the 13 national parks and park reserves established after 1982, Aboriginal harvesting is permitted in 12. Harvesting is prohibited in many of the older, southern parks, including Canada’s first national park, Banff.
(24) The recently approved Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth treaties have specific chapters dedicated to national parks, and provide beneficiaries with the right to harvest wildlife in the national park reserve in their traditional territory. [online] http://www.bctreaty.net/nations/agreements/Maanulth_final_initial_Dec06.pdf. (28 July 2008); [online] http://www.bctreaty.net/nations/agreements/Tsawwassen_final_initial.pdf. (28 July 2008).
(25) McNamee, K. “From Wild Places to Endangered Spaces.” In Parks and Protected Areas in Canada. Eds. Dearden, P., Rollins, R. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002. Rocky Mountain Park became Banff National Park in 1930.
(26) [online] http://westnet/intranet/calgary/ecosystem_services/sara/. (20 July 2008).
(27) The loss of large carnivores such as wolves in areas like Banff and Jasper have led to hyper-abundant prey species such as moose and elk, creating significant problems for both vegetation and the town sites within each park.
(28) Parks Canada. Performance Report for the Period Ending March 31, 2007. Ottawa, ON: Parks Canada, 2007.
(29) Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Interim Management Guidelines. Sidney, BC: Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, 2006.
(30) Fediuk, K., and Thom, B. “Contemporary and Desired Use of Traditional Resources in a Coast Salish Community: Implications for Food Security and Aboriginal Rights in British Columbia”. Paper presented at the 26th Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnobiology. Seattle, WA, 2003.
(31) Most work done to date on traditional harvest planning has been completed in areas of northern Canada where land claims are active and have been established for some time, such as Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Harvest management plans are now being developed for the Porcupine caribou herd, one of the most important ungulate species in North America that has been hunted by Aboriginal people for thousands of years, crossing multiple jurisdictions and harvested by multiple groups. See Nah?a Dehé Consensus Team and Dehcho First Nations. Nah?a Dehé Traditional Harvesting Protocols. Yellowknife, NT: Nah?a Dehé Consensus Team and Dehcho First Nations, 2006; Porcupine Caribou Management Board. Draft Scoping Report for the Preparation of a Harvest Management Strategy in the Canadian Range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Whitehorse, YT: Porcupine Caribou Management Board, 2004; [online] http://www.nwmb.com/english/resources/harvest_study/NWHS%202004%20Report.pdf (05 August 2008).

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