IES News

MRU and Alberta Parks partnership creates groundwork for future of parks stewardship

In a first-of-its-kind collaborative effort, Mount Royal University recently partnered with Alberta Parks to participate in a nationwide leadership course that laid out new groundwork for future efforts to build effective networks to help keep connecting people with nature.

Each year the Canadian Parks Council (CPC) holds its Canadian Parks Council Park Systems Leadership Course as one of many initiatives developed together by provincial, territorial and federal park systems. It is an opportunity to network, brainstorm, research and cooperate in a new environment. This year the course was held in Kananaskis Country at the William Watson Lodge from Oct. 13 to 26, and was attended by park professionals from across the country.

"This, specifically, is about bringing people from all over Canada to Kananaskis Country to come out and look at a problem-based issue," says Barbara McNicol, PhD and geography professor at Mount Royal.

William Watson Lodge

The view from William Watson Lodge.

~Photo by Don Carruthers Den Hoed

Funding to hire three students to play an integral part in the implementation of the course was provided by the CPC and Mount Royal's Institute for Environmental Sustainability (IES), an initiative that was developed through an existing relationship between the IES's PPARG (Parks and Protected Areas Research Group) and Alberta Parks. The students were chosen from three main Bachelor of Science geography courses: Geography 2443 ― Tourism and Recreation Geography, Geography 2445 ― Environmental Problems and Resource Management and Geography 3447 ― Parks and Protected Areas. Beginning in June, they assisted in the pre-course forum and presented reflections to the group at the end. They were software experts, chat moderators, content builders, inspiration agents and storytellers.

Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership student (Faculty of Health, Community and Education) Jennifer Slater was one the students chosen to take part in this pilot project after applying through McNicol's GEOG 3447 course during the spring 2016 semester. She says the experience she gained in the course, through listening to guest speakers and discussing issues, made her capabilities ideal for applying.

"The goal was to build people's leadership skills up and to create new networks and connections. A lot of new relationships were forged," Slater says.

As it was the first time undergrad students were hired to act as support, Slater says it was all very experimental.

Jennifer Slater

Jennifer Slater participated in the Canadian Parks Council Park Systems Leadership Course.

~Photo by Michelle Bodnar

"It was kind of like making it up as we went along. We were initially going to be online forum moderators, but then it turned into something a lot more involved. We wrote up an annotated bibliography for all the participants for all of the readings and videos they had to watch, and ended up interviewing just about everybody who was taking part in the course. We did phone interviews, came up with three questions to ask, and also presented our perspective at the end," Slater says.

Slater says she hopes to see other students have the same opportunity, as the online and telephone aspect made it easy to balance the job and schoolwork.

"It also helped me in my academics because a big portion of my program is leadership theory and leadership skills," Slater says.

"The readings really applied to a lot of the things I've been learning in school, so I was really happy about that aspect. I'm also very personally invested in parks, I spend a lot of time in them and see the potential for me in the future to either have a job with parks or as a third-party stakeholder."

Don Carruthers Den Hoed, PhD candidate and East Kananaskis area manager with Alberta Environment and Parks, was the one to bridge the gap between MRU and Alberta Parks. A PPARG member and adjunct professor with the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Carruthers Den Hoed saw the opportunity to build upon the social science framework Alberta Parks is currently working to implement.

"Alberta Parks is committed to evidence-based decision-making, but that means we need to have some strategy. We need to engage with academics and institutes. It all tied in really nicely to what is happening at Mount Royal and other institutes who are saying, 'we have great research, but we want to make sure it's practical and that we're tying it to real needs.'"

"The three Mount Royal University undergrads involved, that's very new, and something that the Canadian Parks Council has identified as a future opportunity to engage youth," Carruthers Den Hoed says, noting that the MRU students' presentation was especially impactful given the perspective of young, passionate people looking to work in parks.

The theme of this year's CPC course was Doing Better by Working With Others, and it included field trips to Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park, Fish Creek Provincial Parks and Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, as well as presentations by over twenty nonprofit and community partners. Elders and representatives of the Siksika, Kainai, and Stoney Nakoda Nations - the Kananaskis Region is traditional territory represented by Treaty Seven - ensured a prominent Indigenous component. This First Nations element was included to explore additional chances for collaboration such as what has been established at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, where there are Blackfoot interpreters and a great relationship with the Kainai Nation, says Carruthers Den Hoed. Alberta Parks is working across the province in an effort to build further such partnerships.

"If we're going to work on restoring or repairing or reconciling relationships with First Nations and Indigenous communities, places like parks might be a good place to start," Carruthers Den Hoed says.

"The key is that it's not about doing more, it's about being better. Being better about managing parks, being better at how parks fit on a landscape, how users of protected areas, stakeholders and communities can all work together," he says. "And how Alberta Parks can build the organizational capability and culture to work with the Indigenous community, non-profit groups and leadership to further our vision.

"Which is to inspire people to discover, value, protect and enjoy the natural world and all its benefits for current and future generations."

Nov. 22, 2016 ― Michelle Bodnar

(reprinted with permission)