Madam Speaker, I am delighted to rise in the House on this beautiful morning to debate an issue which is of great importance to Canadians. I am talking about the preservation of our natural heritage.
I am privileged to have been born in Saskatchewan and even more privileged to have been able to move to Alberta early in my life. For many years we lived within four hours of two of Canada's most pristine and loved national parks, Jasper National Park and Banff National Park.
We spent time in other national parks, including the park at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Waterton Lakes National Park.
I was chosen to speak on behalf of my party today because the name of my riding is derived directly from the national park in it, Elk Island National Park, which is located just a few miles outside Edmonton.
Elk Island is a unique park because of the fact that it is basically a marsh area. Indeed, the word elk implies that there are elk in the park. There are also bison and many other different forms of wildlife.
I had the privilege last year of hiking with some of the people in the park and, as the good song says“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam”, we roamed with the buffalo. We had to be careful not to interfere with them lest they take exception to us and attack us because at certain times of the year they can be dangerous.
My love of the parks extends over the last 40 years. Some of the best memories I have include visits to the parks, both in Banff and Jasper. We went camping for a week in Jasper for our 25th wedding anniversary. When asked by my friends how our week had gone, I told them it was the worst week I had ever spent. I told them that the problem was, when we entered the park there was a big sign that said “Do not feed the wild animals”, so my wife starved me all week. Camping was not as much fun when I got hungry.
I love the park. Saskatchewan, as members know, has many acres of flat land. Every time I go to the mountains I am completely awestruck by their grandeur, their magnificence. I cannot come up with the words which could adequately describe the mountains.
If there are members of the House who have never visited Canada's Rockies between Alberta and British Columbia, they owe it to themselves to see one of the most beautiful parts of Canada.
Being campers, when we visited these camps we encountered a number of people from around the world. I remember one couple who were quite a bit better off than we were because they had travelled all over the world. One of the things they said was that they had been everywhere in the world, including the Alps in Switzerland, but the most beautiful scenery they had encountered was along the Banff-Jasper highway. Having travelled there several times I would certainly attest to that.
I agree with the general idea of a national parks system in Canada. I very profoundly agree with the concept that we must preserve the pristine character of our parks and our beauty spots, not only for ourselves and visitors from around the world, but for future generations; not only for future generations of Canadians, but also for future generations of people around the world who come to visit and enjoy the beauties of this country.
I mentioned earlier that when we were a young couple with young children we spent some time camping in the national parks. Lest I give the wrong impression, I might as well indict my wife on a very important issue. I have always loved the outdoors and camping under the stars. I remember as a young university student being out near the Rocky Mountain house area. We were preparing a youth camp for summer activities. I remember going to sleep that night, which was beautiful, clear and starry. We did not use the Celsius scale back then, but converting it to the Celsius scale it was probably about minus five degrees in the morning and there were about 10 inches of new snow. That is a picture of beauty which is etched permanently in my mind. I will never forget it.
As a young family I would have loved to have carried on with that camping tradition, but my wife was not so much inclined. She said that she did not really look forward to leaving her nice home, sleeping on the ground or in a tent and being vulnerable to wild animals, insects and all of that. Being the kind, loving husband which I clearly am, I made a concession and we purchased a travel trailer, one that would keep us off the ground, give us some protection when it rained and so on. We made that little compromise. We had wonderful times in our trailer at the campsites of the different parks.
The reason I am saying this is because those are such wonderful, warm memories for me; the environment in which it occurred, the hikes we took and the admiration that we had for the beauty that was given to us. I feel very strongly that we should preserve that and preserve its accessibility, which will be one of the themes of my talk this morning.
When we were a young couple, believe it or not, we could afford to go to Banff for a week. I was not a well paid person. Very early in our marriage we made the decision that my wife would be a full time mom. We have always lived on my income and will retire on my non-pension, since I am one of the members of the House who has opted out of the lucrative MP pension plan. We made the decisions on principle and I do not regret that, but we have never been well off.
I truly am a member of the House of Commons in the sense that I am a commoner. As a young family we were actually able to go into the parks of Banff and Jasper. Those were the ones that attracted us because of their proximity to where we lived. We were able to enjoy them. At that time the fees for camping and for using the amenities were within our budget.
I regret to say that the policies of the federal government over the last number of years have become, really, a case for the elites. It probably dates back to the end of the Liberal era before the Conservatives took over for nine years. It is now really only for the very rich.
We were at the campground not very long ago. I was rather saddened to see that most of the people there were the ones with the big motor homes. Obviously those who were independently wealthy could afford to spend time there, but there were not many people who came from what I would call the rank and file, ordinary middle income Canadians. That is a policy which is very regrettable.
For us as a family it was a wonderful experience.
I regret that the new generation, the moms and dads of today, the young couples, cannot really afford to go to Banff and to Jasper because the daily costs are so high. Many of them are spending time in the area just outside the parks. In southern Alberta we have a couple of areas which are really expanding very quickly. Canmore is probably the best example. It is a large area which is five or six kilometres outside the boundary of the park. That is where people are going because they can enjoy the beauty there. Perhaps they can take a day trip into the park, but they cannot stay in the park because this government and the government before it chose to set an entry fee structure that is beyond the reach of ordinary, overtaxed Canadian families.
That is a mistake as far as I am concerned. I think it is a very large error which I would like to see corrected.
We are talking today about national parks. I have no interest whatsoever in arguing against the desires of the people in Parks Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage to preserve both plant and animal life, to see that it remains undisturbed as much as possible. However, we used to say in Saskatchewan when I was growing up that if someone overdid something they were swatting a fly with a shotgun. It was a huge exaggeration.
I want to be very careful because I do not want to be misunderstood, but I believe that to some degree the ecologists, the biologists and the people at Heritage Canada and others are greatly overstating the degree to which the area needs to be protected.
I believe that we need to respect the land. I believe that we need to respect the parks. We have taught our children to obey rules like staying on the paths in order not to harm the vegetable life that is off the path. We have always done our part to keep the campgrounds clean. Our motto was: when a camper leaves he should leave nothing but the sound of his footsteps. I think that is important. It is a matter of individual responsibility.
Some of the extreme measures that are being taken by the people who claim they are protecting the parks are making them inaccessible to ordinary rank and file Canadians. I have already mentioned the fee structure which they are using to keep ordinary folk out. That is an error.
There are other things as well.
I think of the considerable number of letters and presentations I and my colleagues have received because of Heritage Canada's insistence on closing down the little grass strips for private airplanes in Banff and Jasper. It is impossible to defend the closing of those airstrips if we look at it in balance.
It can be said that the elk used to go across the field and now there is an airstrip and of necessity, there is a big 10 foot fence around it to protect the airstrip so the animals cannot go on the airstrip. Sure, but I have had the occasion to fly over those parks in a jet plane at 25,000 or 30,000 feet. When I looked down I really had to strain my eyes to see the little thread down there that is the Trans-Canada Highway. The towns of Banff and Jasper can hardly be seen from that height simply because there are as many trees in the towns as there are outside them. People live there and tourists come from all over the world to visit there.
To me when I look at it in balance there is a little pin spot which is a town, a little thread which represents a highway and perhaps a railway in the middle of miles and miles and miles of wilderness. Some people are concerned about one more little pin stripe just one-tenth of a millimetre long in the perspective of looking at it from that height. They say, “We do not care if a person in a small airplane gets into trouble. We will not have an emergency airstrip. Let him fly into the mountain”. I think it was the Minister of Canadian Heritage herself who said to let them land wherever they can. People in a small airplane cannot just land it anywhere on the side of a mountain without killing themselves.
That is a totally misdirected set of priorities. When it is more important for the elk and the deer to have a path to walk along than to preserve a human life which may be in danger, that is misplaced priorities. I simply say to the government that there is nothing lost by keeping open a small airstrip. There is nothing lost by that; there is only gain in terms of safety and accessibility to Canadians.
I have talked about the airstrip. I have talked about the fact that there are miles and miles of wilderness available for the wildlife and we as humans are surely able to also enjoy a part of it.
I would like to come back just for a second to the almost sacredness of the space in our parks. It is not a great secret that I am a person who believes in God. One of the songs I have sung many times is “How Great Thou Art”. I do not know if anyone here knows that song.