A few years ago Sykes Powderface and I visited a mouldering old cabin in Banff National Park. He told me a Chinese immigrant market gardener who once lived there used to trade vegetables to Sykes’s father in exchange for bighorn sheep meat.
Some of that meat likely came from national park sheep. Sykes is a Stoney Nakoda elder and his people have traditionally used the high valleys and passes that, starting with the 1885 establishment of Rocky Mountains Park, became Canada’s first national park. The park was never the Stoneys’ idea.
For many Canadians, national parks are remnants of pristine wilderness, meant to be protected from people. That idea is founded in fallacy. No Canadian landscape was unmarked by human presence when European settlers first decided to give themselves some parks. What looked to the colonizers like untouched wilderness was in fact a mosaic of cultural landscapes shaped by Indigenous use of fire, plant culture, hunting and other practices. Those wilds were home places.
Indigenous Canadians, however, were soon unwelcome in many of our older, better-known parks. In the case of Banff, in fact, the park superintendent insisted they be banished. In his 1903 annual report, Howard Douglas described the Stoneys as ruthless hunters whose depredations were wiping out game herds.
Conveniently ignoring hunting and poaching by growing hordes of white settlers, Douglas persuaded Ottawa to expand the park to over 4,000 square miles—much larger than today. The story Sykes told me, and the one by which his people came to know Banff, was that the Mounties set up a guard station at the new park gate to keep Indians out. Tourists were welcome in places where the Stoneys had always camped, gathered medicines, collected pipestone, hunted and prayed; only the original inhabitants weren’t.
Those who were surprised by the idea of a traditional community hunt in a national park probably shouldn’t have been.
Eventually the Stoney people were allowed to visit their homelands again, but only as visitors. It wasn’t until 2010 that a different superintendent formally welcomed them home. A small step toward reconciliation, it was a very long time coming.
Last fall Jasper National Park took a much bigger step, one that soon became controversial with those who would rather that reconciliation take place outside the national parks and not involve any real change to the status quo.
The ancestors of the Simpcw people lived along the Athabasca River valley. Fur traders called them the Snaring Indians, from the traps they set for large animals. Jasper’s Snaring River got its name from these people. But in the 1800s, decimated both by smallpox and by armed conflict with newcomers, the Simpcw retreated west to the Fraser River valley. In the early 1900s the government forcibly relocated them to a reserve near Kamloops.
The Simpcw are among several Indigenous groups collaborating with Parks Canada to reconcile Jasper’s history of expropriation and exclusion with our constitutional obligation to respect this country’s original people. In October 2017 the Simpcw held their first traditional community hunt on their ancestral lands in well more than a century. Nine hunters and several support members camped near the Snaring River. They killed three elk, two bighorn sheep and a deer. The meat and hides were shared in the community, just as it was long done.
Chief Nathan Matthew said, “Acting freely in our own traditional territory, representing ourselves as a Nation and having our people exercise our rights through this harvest means the world to us. [It] gives us a better memory of Jasper National Park and helps deal with some of the intergenerational trauma of being forced from the land. Together, we are working in a true spirit of reconciliation with Parks Canada to move forward together through mutual respect.”
Those who were surprised by the idea of a traditional community hunt in a national park probably shouldn’t have been. Land claim agreements in Canada’s North have created modern national parks around a co-management model that includes ongoing hunting and gathering by Indigenous peoples. Local Cree communities have always hunted and trapped in Wood Buffalo National Park.
Even Banff has dipped its toes into these once unheard-of waters. The park has culled up to 20 elk from the Banff townsite area each winter since 2006, to keep the animals from congregating in town. Hunters from the Siksika and Stoney Nakoda First Nations join parks staff, help select the animals to be killed, and take about a third of the culled animals back to their communities. It’s not hunting the way Sykes’s father did it, but it beats being turned away at the gates.
Jasper has now taken a much bigger step toward turning Canada’s national park idea into one that includes the people who lived here first. There are those who worry that last fall’s Simpcw community hunt may have established a precedent. They’re right. It did. It’s about time.
Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.