WFP Column: The Path Forward

Landmarks: The Path Forward – The design of parks and the collaborative approach to create them continue to evolve

The Brokenhead Wetland Ecological Reserve arose from a collaborative process that gave the First Nation an equal voice.

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, HTFC Planning & Design is hosting a series of conversations about the landmark plans and places that have shaped our province over the past five decades. The focus will be on pivotal moments, when new ideas altered the course of development and influenced how we see ourselves and our communities. Each article will follow the changing public discourse around these moments over the last half-century, and examine them within the context of the wider social, cultural and political debates of the day to draw lessons for the future.

Interview and article by Matthew Carreau, photography by Lindsay Reid of CLICK.STUDIO.

With warm weather finally upon us, and summer just around the corner, Manitoba’s beautiful parks and natural landscapes beckon. For many, especially those of us who live in cities and towns, Manitoba’s parks provide a vital connection — or escape— to the great outdoors. Iconic parks like the Whiteshell and Riding Mountain, and other treasures like Spruce Woods and Hecla Grindstone, provide the backdrop for cherished memories with family and friends.

We take parks for granted — assuming they are as timeless and everlasting as the landscape itself. But parks are a relatively modern invention, shaped by human interests and priorities as much as by the natural elements. The history of parks in Manitoba has evolved considerably over the past half century from the recreational leisure grounds of the Whiteshell in the 1960s, to ecological preserves with interpretive learning elements, to new forms of digitally augmented park experiences today.

The way we plan, design and manage parks has changed, too. Where parks were once created by governmental decree, today there is a recognition of the need to work co-operatively with local communities to develop parks that protect ecological and cultural values. Canada’s newest World Heritage Site, Pimachiowin Aki, located on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, formed and managed jointly by four area First Nations together with the Manitoba and Ontario provincial governments, is an exciting example of a protected area that links ecological stewardship with cultural preservation and public education.

To talk about the evolving nature of parks and protected areas in Manitoba, their design, management and future, we brought together experts representing different perspectives for a wide ranging conversation: Rob Nedotiafko, director of Manitoba’s Parks and Protected Spaces to outline the history and role of the province in the creation and management of parks; Peggy Bainard Acheson from Native Orchid Conservation Inc.; and Carl Smith from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation to talk about the innovative Brokenhead Wetland Ecological Reserve and Interpretive Trail; and Jim Thomas, senior adviser with HTFC Planning & Design, to provide context on the changing nature of park planning and design over the past 50 years.

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The history of parks can be characterized into three eras, each coinciding with a shift in the way we think about and make use of natural landscapes, Nedotiafko said.

The first era saw the park as a recreational and tourist destination for the enjoyment of people. It began in the late 19th and early 20th century with the creation of parks such as Banff, or Yellowstone in the United States, and continued through the postwar era. These were often places with remarkable scenic value. The second shift came with the growing environmental awareness in the 1960s and accelerated into the 1980s and 1990s with the creation of protected areas and ecological reserves to protect sensitive habitat. A third shift came in the early 2000s and continues today as governments started taking seriously their obligation to consult with Indigenous communities in the creation of protected areas, and Indigenous communities themselves began to organize to protect and manage their traditional lands.

“Our own Whiteshell Provincial Park is a classic example of a first-generation provincial park in Manitoba, created to preserve natural landscapes while accommodating recreational opportunities and existing resource uses in the park area,” Nedotiafko said. In fact, the Whiteshell area had initially been set aside by the federal government as a forest reserve to supply industry with timber. By the 1950s, with the expansion of roadways and railways through the area — and with the postwar baby boom — the number of summer cottages began to increase. “When the Provincial Parks Act came in 1960, it brought together all of these existing land uses and created guidelines for planning and management of the park landscapes.”

Managing the development of the park and balancing the needs of people with the landscape was a key issue in the early days.

Rob Nedotiafko, left, director of Manitoba’s Parks and Protected Spaces and Jim Thomas, a senior adviser with HTFC.

Thomas reflected on the work of landscape architect and HTFC founder Garry Hilderman on the first planning study for the Whiteshell: “Garry was a graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1960s and his thesis work was focused on the Whiteshell. Garry’s approach was very much grounded in a detailed understanding of the natural landscape and ecology of the park. His planning guidelines were all about minimizing the impacts of human use and developing the park in harmony with the character of the landscape.”

While Hilderman’s work was ultimately utilized by the province as the basis for a recreation planning study for the Whiteshell, he was ahead of the curve in terms of his thinking about parks as both a natural landscape to be protected and the need to balance human uses of the land. This sensitivity to the interface between human and natural environments is a hallmark of the approach of landscape architecture, but it also foreshadowed the growing environmental awareness and activism of the 1960s and ’70s.

The dawning environmental movement of this period — exemplified by publications such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and groundbreaking new environmental legislation in both Canada and the United States — prompted a rethink of Manitoba’s approach to parks. “The update to the Parks Act in 1972 brought a new focus on parks as a tool for the protection and preservation of landscapes,” Nedotiafko said. “There was a realization that parks were operating on a more consumptive model, and that it was time to look at parks with a different lens focused on conservation.”

The current Provincial Parks Act was passed in 1993 and introduced more sophisticated tools for designating and protecting landscapes by creating new categories including heritage parks, wilderness parks and ecological reserves, as well as land-use categories designating different types of permitted activities and development in parks. “There was a recognition that parks and protected areas should represent the different natural regions of Manitoba; everything from the prairies in the southwest to the Hudson Bay coastal areas in the northeast. The goal was to identify and preserve representative pieces of Manitoba’s varied landscape as a whole system,” he said.

While this second era of park development brought with it a greater focus on conservation, there was still limited attention paid to the cultural dimensions, particularly to engagement and consultation with Indigenous communities that had been living on and making use of these lands for generations. This had been a long-standing issue, said Brokenhead’s Carl Smith.

“When the treaty was signed, there were provisions about land use, but when the reserves were formed, that was taken away from us. When it came to the creation of parks in the 1960s, again there was no consultation with us. They just assumed this is what we wanted,” he said.

Peggy Bainard Acheson says controlled access ensures protection.

Referring to Whiteshell, Smith noted the creation of parks was often another way to limit Indigenous access to the land. “When you look at places like Bannock Point and Tie Creek, there’s spiritual significance for us there; teachings on the rocks, legends and stories — and now Tie Creek is fenced and we have to get permission to go in there. I don’t think that’s the right kind of approach to working with First Nations.”

The impact of cottagers and recreational users also had negative consequences for the health of ecosystems and traditional practices. “It’s not just the petroforms,” Smith said. “The land and waters are important for us too. We use them as a resource for wild rice and fishing. But the regulation of lake water levels for cottage living has destroyed the wild rice, faster than we ever could just by hand-picking.”

Thomas added that when government did begin to reach out and engage, it was often met with reluctance and skepticism from the First Nations. “Initially, communities were understandably unwilling to share information about their knowledge of the land because in the past that knowledge had been taken away or used for purposes where they had no control,” he said.

As the legal and constitutional landscape in Canada began to shift in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the recognition of government’s obligation and duty to consult with First Nations communities began to be established in law, Manitoba Parks started taking a new approach to working co-operatively with First Nations to plan, develop and manage parks and protected areas.

“What you began to see was a shift in control and power,” Thomas said, “which was absolutely essential in order for Indigenous communities to feel that there was a true partnership, that they could have control over land use decisions with respect to park management, and could see benefit for future generations.”

Early experiments with co-operative approaches to designating protected areas with Indigenous communities in Manitoba began with Poplar River First Nation and the creation of the Asatiwisipe Aki protected area to the east of Lake Winnipeg. A memorandum of understanding signed by Poplar River and other First Nations in the area became the genesis for further cooperation between First Nations and the Manitoba and Ontario provincial governments leading eventually to the establishment of the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site.

“I think we’re beginning to see more and more of this in parts of Canada,” Thomas said. “Governments are recognizing that parks aren’t just areas of untouched wilderness, they are part of the traditional territories of Indigenous people who have constitutionally protected treaty rights. With that recognition we are now seeing partnerships emerge that link the protection of landscapes with the protection of Indigenous cultures, and First Nations are leading that movement.”

The Brokenhead Wetland Ecological Reserve is another example of co-operation between First Nations, local advocates and government to establish a protected area of rare beauty. Located about an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg, the wetland is a unique ecosystem in Manitoba, home to more than 350 species of plants, including 23 rare plants, 28 native orchids and eight carnivorous (insecteating) plants. “The wetland is important to us for many reasons, being a place where we go to collect medicines and ceremonial plants,” Smith said.

While the value of Brokenhead wetland is appreciated today, in the late 1990s its existence was far from certain. A groundwater well installed between the wetland and nearby Gull Lake by the provincial government of the day threatened to lower the water table and disrupt the orchid habitat. Local cottager and orchid enthusiast Bud Ewacha raised the alarm and established Native Orchid Conservation Inc. (NOCI) to build public awareness and political pressure to protect the wetland.

Carl Smith says the Brokenhead wetland project has been a success, attracting more than 1,400 visitors to the ecological reserve last year.

The wetland, which is part of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation’s traditional lands, has been used by Indigenous communities for millennia. When NOCI approached Brokenhead about nominating the area for ecological reserve status, there was initial concern that an official designation would restrict their access and rights to collect plants and use the land in a traditional way. Fortunately, under the Provincial Parks legislation, the designation of a protected ecological area was not incompatible with traditional Indigenous uses of the land.

The wetland was declared an ecological reserve in 2005, and shortly afterward, members of Brokenhead began to organize an effort to build a trail through the site that would maintain community access and allow elders to pass on their traditional knowledge of the wetlands to the next generation. With encouragement and counsel from the province, a working group made up of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, NOCI and the Manitoba Model Forest (in existence at that time) came together to form Debwendon Inc., dedicated to the protection of the ecological reserve, and the development of an interpretive trail.

“Debwendon means ‘trust’ in Ojibway.” The name was chosen by Smith’s father, the late Lawrence Smith, in recognition of the trust that is shared between the different partners in managing the trail. The concept of debwendon is also about the trust that is held for future generations. “Our goal is to preserve the wetland for generations to come; education is an important part of that,” Smith said. This is a uniquely Indigenous way of thinking about protection and land management that is rooted in a more collective approach.

“I’m very proud of what we did there,” Smith said. “Last year we had more than 1,400 visitors to the trail. We’re passing on the knowledge of what we have to the public and the next generation.” The interpretive trail includes 1.5 kilometres of boardwalk that winds through a forest of balsam fir and white cedar, with interpretive signage that allows visitors to learn about the unique ecology of the wetland.

Putting a boardwalk through a sensitive ecological reserve might seem counter-productive, but as former NOCI president Peggy Bainard Acheson noted, opening the wetland to controlled public access is a strategy to ensure the long-term protection and viability of the wetland. The trail and interpretive elements help build public understanding and appreciation for the wetland and its unique ecological features. “With that understanding, people are more inclined to not only use it, but to step up and get involved to help protect it,” she said.

If the third era in protected areas and parks planning was all about engagement and co-operation with Indigenous communities, the Brokenhead Wetland Ecological Reserve and Interpretive Trail signals another shift into a new way of creating parks that brings together recreation, conservation, Indigenous management and traditional knowledge and education into an exciting new format.

“People are looking to have more authentic experiences in natural areas and interpretive landscapes like the Brokenhead trail facilitate that,” Nedotiafko said.

Manitoba is currently in the spotlight as an international travel destination precisely because of the authentic experiences visitors can have in its parks and wild areas. For Smith, this signals a huge opportunity for Indigenous-led tourism and businesses. “We’re working with the province on a five-year Aboriginal tourism strategy. We’re focused on hands-on experiences such as trap-line tourism, or how to make tea in the bush, bush survival and what to use for cuts and bruises, stuff like that.”

Providing the next generation of park experiences not only requires an upgrade of aging park facilities and infrastructure, but also technology that improves the online booking and reservation service, Wi-Fi access, and mobile apps that enhance visitor experiences. It all comes down to accessibility: making parks as user friendly and accessible for as many people as possible.

“We are finding increasing public interest in digital experiences and mobile connectivity enhancements to enrich their Manitoba Parks experiences, such as potential apps to manage their campsite bookings or to find their next trail journey or interpretive experience.” Nedotiafko said.

An example of the next frontier of technology can be seen in Manitoba’s newest provincial park, located in the heart of Winnipeg at Upper Fort Garry. Designed by HTFC as one of the last projects that Hilderman was involved in before passing away in 2016, it is not “your typical old-style heritage house experience,” Thomas said. “Instead of trying to recreate the past, the park acts as a ‘platform for information.’ In fact, to get the most out of the park you need an app to help you discover the different elements of history and culture embedded in the landscape, and there are resources for teachers and educators as well.”

Last year, local tech pioneers CanTalk released a second app that allows visitors to hear stories of the fort in 11 languages, including Cree and Ojibway.

Manitoba’s parks and natural landscapes provide a platform for not only connecting with nature, but for building understanding about natural systems and the rich culture and heritage that has shaped our province. And landscape architecture is uniquely positioned to work between and connect these layers.

“Landscape architects approach the idea of parks in terms of relationships between people, cultures and the land. If you look at the plan Garry was involved in with the Whiteshell, he was thinking about visitor experiences, and ecological processes, classifying landscapes by their character and suitability for various uses, and layering that information together,” Thomas said.

Fifty years after Hilderman helped create the first plan for the Whiteshell Provincial Park, kick-starting the formation of what would become HTFC Planning & Design, parks continue to evolve. Whether the next era will be digital or something entirely new and unexpected, the act of protecting land remains important for future generations to create opportunities for connection, respite and understanding.