Madam Speaker, I am happy to rise today to speak to Bill C-18, which proposes amendments to the Rouge National Urban Park Act that was passed in the last Parliament. I will be speaking in favour of this bill, as it strengthens the protections of this park and its ecological integrity.
I will begin my comments about national parks in general, Rouge Park in particular, and then spend some time talking about how this bill is pertinent to a national park proposal in my riding of South Okanagan—West Kootenay.
Rouge Park is the first urban national park in Canada, marking an innovative step in the approach Parks Canada is taking to protecting our ecosystems across the country. When we first started creating national parks back in 1885, we had vast areas of wilderness to choose from in southern Canada. We created large parks throughout the western mountains, Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke. In the boreal forests of the prairie provinces we made Prince Albert National Park, Riding Mountain National Park, and the enormous Wood Buffalo National Park. Some early national parks were smaller, such as Point Pelee National Park in the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario. However, for the most part, we look to our wilderness as a source of parkland. We had lots of that a century ago. Today, those opportunities are much more limited, and I was happy to see Parks Canada broadening the scope of their protected areas with the creation of Rouge National Urban Park.
Our national parks play a number of roles, and first among these is to protect the full range of ecosystems found across this wild and diverse country. Our national parks provide a rich opportunity for Canadians to experience, enjoy, and learn about our natural heritage. That is certainly an important role for parks near urban centres, such as the Rouge. Bill C-18 emphasizes that first role, the preservation and enhancement of the ecological integrity in our parks, which is critical to the success of all natural parks, whether they are areas of vast wilderness or smaller areas hemmed in by urban and agricultural landscapes. The bill would make the maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity the first priority of the minister in all aspects of the management of the park. Also, the bill would add more federal lands to Rouge park. Size matters, at least when we are talking about ecological integrity.
In the mid-1900s, Parks Canada began a program to represent the full ecological diversity of this huge country in the national parks system, adding parks to Atlantic Canada, and in the north. As the decades went on, it became more challenging to find representative areas in the south that could function as parks. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan dealt with issues around ranching and grazing, while the establishment of Gwaii Haanas involved payment to the B.C. government for lost opportunities in forestry. Despite these challenges, these parks are now considered successes, and indeed national treasures. Gwaii Haanas is also a model of how co-management with first nations communities and government can work in a national park setting.
However, there are still ecoregions of Canada that are unrepresented. In 1979, almost 40 years ago, one of my first real jobs after graduating from university was a contract with Parks Canada to report on opportunities for the creation of a national park in the dry interior of British Columbia, one of the only major ecoregions south of 60 with no representation in our national parks system. I found large areas on the interior plateau that were relatively intact but lacked many of the characteristics that made the dry interior unique in Canada, particularly desert grasslands and ponderosa pine forests. These grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada, along with the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario, as in the Rouge, the tall grass prairies of Manitoba, and the Garry oak savannah of southern Vancouver Island. Those rare grassland ecosystems were best represented in the south Okanagan Valley. However, opportunities for a large wilderness park there were limited. Most of the low-elevation habitats were highly altered, and most of the grasslands converted to orchards and vineyards. The land base is a complex mosaic of provincial, federal, first nations, and private ownership.
For various reasons, nothing was accomplished to create a national park in the dry interior of B.C. for about 25 years. Then, in 2002, an initiative began to bring together various groups in the south Okanagan to get a national park established there. Federal, provincial, and municipal leaders, first nations, and environmental groups lobbied B.C. and the Canadian government and were successful in starting a feasibility study to look at the idea.
While there is general local support for the park proposal, the situation is complex and there are many issues to consider. First Nations were in favour of the idea in principle, but wanted a real role in the development of the park and a direct role in the management of it, as is done in Gwaii Haanas and many northern National Parks. First Nations initially objected to sacred areas included in initial Parks Canada maps of the park proposal. These areas are now excluded and First Nations are again supportive.
Environmentalists were disappointed that some important areas were dropped from the Parks Canada proposal. Hunters were concerned about the loss of hunting opportunities.
A large helicopter school was concerned, and still is, about assurances that its operations would not be affected by a new park.
Ranchers, the group most directly affected in terms of their livelihoods, were deeply concerned that a new national park would put an end to their operations. In BC, most ranchers lease large areas of crown land range in the summer and without access to that land base, they would be out of business very quickly.
It was a complicated situation, and it is perhaps not surprising that the process floundered for several years before the feasibility study was released with a positive answer in 2011. First nations released their own study, again agreeing in principle to move forward with planning in 2013.
Parks Canada spent some time working on a new policy to deal with the concerns of ranchers. It eventually decided that for this park, grazing could be allowed exactly as it was now managed under the B.C. Forest and Range Practices Act. Unfortunately, just before the talks could move on to the next stage, the B.C. government pulled out of the process. Again the initiative languished until the province recently announced it was willing to come back to the table and talk about a national park. I was very happy to hear that decision, and I hope to see the process move forward once again.
Like Rouge Park, the national park in the Okanagan would not be like the big wilderness parks across our country, but it is needed to protect the rare and diverse ecosystems in southern British Columba. It would provide a big boost to the local economy. If other national parks in B.C. are anything to go by, it would create hundreds of direct and indirect jobs, all while protecting the local environment. It would also bring federal funding for the acquisition and management of the park. Yes, it will take time and continued dialogue to create, but we should not give up on it simply because of those difficulties.
The innovation I see in the creation of Rouge Park sets a good example of how new national parks can and should be created in the future, as Canada's national landscapes become increasingly fragmented. I would point to the recent creation of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve as another model of park creation in a landscape of complex land ownership.
Bill C-18 would also broaden the ability of Parks Canada to pay out funds from the new parks and historic sites account. This measure will give the government greater flexibility in paying out funds for the acquisition of land to expand any national park, not just for establishing a new park. Again, this makes it easier to establish parks in areas of complex land ownership. Since the days of expropriating land for national parks is essentially over, private lands will only be added on a willing seller basis and that is very difficult to arrange the moment a park is created.
Bill C-18 would strengthen the ability of Parks Canada to meet its mandate to give strong directions for ecosystem integrity and would create room for innovative solutions to both park establishment and park management. It would keep Rouge Park as a national treasure and I hope allow Parks Canada to continue to preserve the full diversity of our natural heritage, including the dry grasslands and forests of the south Okanagan Valley, for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.