It took a pandemic for many people to realize there’s plenty of nature to explore within city limits. That’s one reason why Parks Canada wants to expand its network of national urban parks.
The federal agency signed partnership agreements with three municipalities: Saskatoon, Halifax and Winnipeg. It is also looking to identify potential urban park sites in places including the greater Edmonton area, Colwood, B.C., Windsor, Ont., and Montreal.
In Saskatoon, a Prairie city of more than 300,000 people with a river that winds through its centre, locals are already beaming with excitement.
“I actually was in tears,” said Candace Savage, a local author and nature enthusiast who has spent years writing politicians at all levels to draw attention to Saskatoon’s native grasslands.
“It gives more dignity and authority to the demand for protecting and stewarding and deeply interpreting and appreciating these lands.”
Making Saskatoon a tourist attraction
Sixty-seven square kilometres of Saskatoon’s river valley is currently managed by Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA). The stewardship group formed in 1978 with a mandate to promote and preserve the area along the South Saskatchewan River within city limits.
“Here is a natural beauty, which gives the citizens of Saskatoon, and a visitor, really a moment to pause [and think] about how wonderful a province and wonderful a community we have,” said former premier Roy Romanow, who was key in getting the MVA established more than four decades ago.
WATCH | Controversy over perceived power of the Meewasin Act:
The current conservation model has multiple funding partners. The amount of funding has frequently fluctuated, leading to some problems.
The MVA was forced to close its visitor centre in 2016, and residents often complain about litter, saying the MVA does not have enough money to keep the riverbank clean.
Savage hopes federal funds will provide greater opportunities for Saskatoon to accomplish what it wants along the riverbank.
Many say the designation will attract tourists.
“I think it would have a really good impact on our economy,” said Andrea Lafond, the MVA’s CEO. “Just like we will take our trips to Banff, folks will come to see the native prairie in the Meewasin Valley.”
A greater Indigenous role
Banff National Park formed as Canada’s first national park in 1885. While the national treasure now sees thousands of visitors each year, the history of the park is troubled.
Roads in and out of the park were built by war internees. Historians point out that Indigenous people were often displaced when these parks were established.
Since Saskatoon’s Meewasin Valley flows through Treaty 6 territory and the traditional homeland of the Métis, both Parks Canada and MVA say Indigenous people will play an important role in a potential park. In fact, Meewasin is a Cree word for beautiful.
Kevin Wesaquate, a multi-disciplinary artist from Piapot First Nation who lives and works in Saskatoon, said the river is a place of solace for him.
“Once you make your way down to the river you have that extra connection that comes through and washes away, if you will, and passes through the other side of the city,” he said.
“There are some local reservations that exist up in this waterway of Saskatchewan here, so I think that providing space for them to lend their insight, their knowledge systems about the water and what’s done beside it or over it would be beneficial for everyone.”
National parks ‘help define who we are’
Canada now has 48 national parks, with only one set in an urban environment: Rouge National Urban Park, formed in Toronto in 2011.
Gord Vaadland, the executive director of the Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said many people who live in urban areas can’t get out to national and provincial parks outside the city.
“This provides them with an opportunity to experience these natural settings and experience nature and have that kind of experience they might not otherwise have,” he said.
Vaadland noted Parks Canada is a “huge marketing machine” that could draw tourists to Saskatoon the way it has to Rouge National Urban Park.
He said he is most pleased with the fact that Parks Canada prioritizes the environment.
As one might suspect, many hope the new park will include red chairs, as Muskoka loungers have become a signifier of Canada’s National Parks.
“National parks help define who we are,” said Saskatoon historian Bill Waiser. “It’s like the Mounties, the beaver — there are certain national symbols, and when people think of Canada, many think of national parks and that’s why Meewasin going for urban national park status is a wonderful initiative.”
MVA CEO Andrea Lafond reminds people “our toes are just at the starting line.” She said the first step is bringing together all key partners, including members of the public.