Reflecting on the role of parks in reconciliation

Cities are working with Indigenous communities to celebrate Indigenous culture, strengthen relationships, and reckon with the ongoing colonial entanglements of parks systems.

Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park Pavilion - City of Prince George

Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park Pavilion - City of Prince George

In Vancouver, the Park Board has begun unprecedented work to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth about Canadian parks: their existence is rooted in colonial dispossession.

Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park Pavilion - City of Prince George

Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park Pavilion - City of Prince George

In July 2018, the Park Board initiated a “colonial audit” that entails looking inward at its own “core acts of colonialism” to begin a process of learning and reflecting that aims to advance the truth-telling phase of reconciliation.

The initiative comes at a time when the Park Board is grappling with a critical question that will likely resonate across Canadian city parks departments: “how does our commitment to spaces for ‘the people’ sit alongside recognition of Aboriginal rights and title?” a Park Board staff report asked.

The audit, currently underway, will trace colonial histories into the present to unpack the ways in which colonialism continues to shape the Park Board’s work—from strategic planning to everyday operations. It comes after the City of Vancouver declared itself a City of Reconciliation in 2014, and adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016.

The audit’s truth-telling purpose is informed by a staff report which outlines findings from consultations with Indigenous people and organizations to learn about their experiences and challenges working with city government. A key learning is that, for many people, “reconciliation” is problematic as a concept—the “re-” implies a return to an imagined past state of being “conciled” which has never been possible under colonialism—and far-off as a reality.

The first step in moving forward, the Park Board learned, is to meaningfully understand the actions, practices, and systems embedded in the Park Board’s past and present that have inflicted injustice upon the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, upon whose unceded territory the City of Vancouver sits.

The Park Board’s first Reconciliation Planner, Rena Soutar, is leading the audit.

“For over 100 years, the Park Board was the narrator and curator of cultural narrative in Vancouver’s parks. This has long contributed to the erasure of the local First Nations,” Rena said. “We are now in a prime position to correct these situations and demonstrate what a decolonization process within a Reconciliation framework can look like in a public institution.”

Initial research for the audit identified four areas of colonial impacts: dispossession, archaeology, culture, and prioritizing non-Indigenous ways of knowing.

A collaborative project forges relationships

In Prince George, B.C., a partnership at the city’s flagship downtown park has allowed for renewed relationship-building between the City and the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation.

A key moment in the partnership came in 2015, when the park was renamed to Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park to acknowledge the site’s history as a First Nation village and burial ground, but also the continuing presence of Lheidli T’enneh in Prince George. This laid the groundwork for further collaboration on the development of an award-nominated park pavilion, which opened summer 2018.

The pavilion is centred on the theme of confluence. It’s situated at the meeting of the Fraser and Nechako Rivers, a culturally significant place for Lheidli T’enneh people, but it’s also “a real physical expression of a relationship between the City, the community, and the Lheidli T’enneh,” said Rob van Adrichem, Director of External Relations at the City of Prince George.

The Pavilion offers programming to celebrate intercultural learning and displays that include photographs of youth and elders. The projects is meant to honour the land it’s on, as Lheidli T’enneh Chief Dominic Frederick told Prince George Daily News, but “we also wanted to honour our youth and our elders.”

Featuring the logos of both the City and the Lheidli T’enneh, Rob noted that it’s “the first joint facility in the community.”

“This is about a relationship… it’s not just about the pavilion, it's not just about some events that occur, this is about every day,” Rob said, while also acknowledging that working in partnership is “not always easy, because of different organizational and administrative and governance realities.”

City staff are mindful of the inherent tensions and limitations of working on Indigenous initiatives on unceded parklands.

“It's very easy to look at these issues and be overwhelmed… and say ‘it's too complicated, we're just going to leave that for now.' I think it's really about trying and not letting complexity or protocol or fear trump our behaviour, and it's just going to be that where we don't know, we just ask. And that's hard—that's hard in government,” Rob said.

“We're used to sort of having jurisdiction—if you work in utilities, that water main is ours, and when it breaks, we go and fix it… I think we've taken the approach that we'll fail, but we'll get better and we'll continue to try.”

Other highlights:

  • In 2018, a new park called ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞, opened in Edmonton on the site of Indigenous ancestral lands. A collaboration between Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, Métis Nation of Alberta, Edmonton Arts Council, and the City, the park showcases permanent art installations created by six Indigenous artists who were asked to “tell the story of this place.” The resulting artworks, viewable here, include pehonan by Tiffany Shaw Collinge, an amphitheatre-style gathering space meant for teaching, performance, and storytelling.
  • In Montreal, the Roundhouse Cafe located in Cabot Square is an Indigenous-operated cafe. This project’s mission is to promote social diversity and empowerment of Indigenous people. A report about the learnings from the project was carried out by the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Strategy Network in collaboration with the borough of Ville-Marie.
  • In 2016, Gatineau opened Abinan Square, which means 'People were here' in Anishinabe. The project included art by the Anishinabe artist Simon Brascoupé, Birch Bark Basket, which is the first piece of Indigenous art to be incorporated into the Municipal Public Art Collection. The park was done in collaboration with the Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi, whose Chief, Jean-Guy Whiteduck, said in a press release he hoped the square would “better publicize the history of our ancestors and this territory.”

Parks as places of arrival

Canadian cities are finding creative ways to bring parks into the settlement experience for newcomers and vice versa.

For newcomers to Canadian cities, local parks can be sites that help ground the disorienting process of adjusting to a new home.

Mabelle Park - Toronto

Mabelle Park - Toronto

But getting acquainted with the park system isn’t always a simple experience. Many newcomers face challenges related to a lack of familiarity with neighbourhood parks and programs, a busy schedule, linguistic and cultural barriers, and experiences with discrimination.

Last summer a new initiative launched in five Canadian cities to transform local parks into vibrant and inviting “places of arrival.”

Welcome to this Place, led by arts organization MABELLEarts and supported by many partners, brought newcomers and refugees together with long-term Canadian residents and Indigenous peoples to celebrate and connect with local parks—and each other—through art.

Drawing on local partnerships with artists and organizations, Welcome to This Place saw parks in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, and Winnipeg come alive with activities like dance, music, cooking, and storytelling.

As MABELLEarts’ Artistic Director Leah Houston explained, the program was conceived to address “an essential part of the settlement process and story that we were identifying was being missed.”

People coming to Canada “were often fleeing violence and war, and they were getting a lot of their needs met,” Leah said. “But what they weren't getting was the opportunity to meet other people, including more established Canadians, and they weren't getting the chance to just have fun. And so we really saw that as an opportunity.”

Some of the program’s participants had only been in the country for a week. In this context, it’s easy to see how engagement could require different strategies and skills. In Toronto, Leah credits the community leaders MABELLEarts works with in the Mabelle neighbourhood as playing an invaluable role in the success of the events.

“[They] have developed a lot of really good facilitation skills by being a part of our project,” Leah said, “but also this added superpower of a), speaking Arabic, and b), having the lived experience of themselves being new to Canada, to really be the most incredible welcomers for these refugees that we were meeting.”

To share the insights gained, MABELLEarts has created Placing Parks—a resource on hosting art-based park events with newcomers in mind. It includes policy points to help guide cities and funders in supporting this type of work and a toolkit for fostering active inclusion and partnerships.

Engaging newcomers in park redevelopment

In addition to welcoming newcomers into existing parks, cities like Calgary are recognizing a need to re-think the way parks are designed, and how people are engaged in that process. Parks staff work closely with the Calgary Neighbourhoods Unit to draw on existing community-based research and partnerships.

Through this collaboration, Parks staff review community profiles to better understand the demographics of the park’s potential users and receive training on how to effectively and respectfully work with specific groups. This helps staff better tailor their engagement strategies to reach local residents.

For example, in Calgary’s Prairie Winds Park, staff spread the word about an upcoming park re-development through local mosques, temples, and a Punjabi radio station. The engagement resulted in a culturally responsive park design that includes a tandoori oven, cricket pitch, and picnic shelters to accommodate large family gatherings.

Highlighting parks at newcomer orientations

Charlottetown has found that a starting point to welcome newcomers into parks is simply ensure they know where to find them. Each fall, the City runs a series of newcomer welcome events to introduce newly-arrived immigrants to the city and includes a bus tour of the city’s parks.

Likewise, representatives from Mississauga’s Forestry Department attend the City’s ‘newcomer roadshow’ to invite people to participate in tree-planting events as part of the City’s One Million Trees program. Such initiatives are simple ways to open the door for the city’s newest residents to get involved in parks.

Getting pumped up about age-friendly fitness

Thoughtfully designed park programs and amenities are helping older adults stay active—physically and socially.

Whether playing a sport, walking along a trail, or frolicking in a splashpad, parks are key places to get the blood pumping. But the way we exercise in parks often changes over the course of a lifetime.

City of Victoria

City of Victoria

A key challenge is ensuring parks are accessible and programming is appropriate for an aging population. A 2018 study of U.S. neighbourhood parks found that while seniors made up 20% of the population, they only made up 4% of park users.

Age-friendly fitness initiatives demonstrate that it’s all about instilling confidence, accommodating different physical abilities, and, of course, making it fun!

Toronto’s Walk in the Park Program

In 2018, Park People’s Walk in the Park program trained 25 community leaders above the age of 55 to organize walking clubs in their local parks. Key to the program was developing partnerships with community centres and social service agencies, including in three underserved neighbourhoods.

In an end-of-program survey of 265 participants—about 4 in 5 of whom were older adults—99.6% said that they plan to continue walking regularly for exercise. But it’s not just about the exercise—the number of participants who indicated they feel a strong connection to their local community more than doubled from the start of the program, demonstrating that the pairing of physical and social activities can be especially meaningful for older adults.

Calgary’s mobile fitness pop-ups

Over the summer of 2018, Calgary launched a pilot program bringing mobile fitness equipment to parks and animating five new and existing outdoor gyms with a rotating schedule of free fitness instruction.

The programming, designed specifically for people above the age of 65, aimed to boost people’s comfort and confidence using the equipment, and promote physical and social activity among older adults who are at greater risk of social isolation.

In the Southwood neighbourhood, the pop-up was placed next to a library and a playground, making it convenient for people to access and allowing parents or grandparents to enjoy their own workout while their kids play.

Saskatoon’s River Landing Outdoor Adult Fitness Circuit

Saskatonians can enjoy a workout with a view at the River Landing Outdoor Fitness Circuit where exercisers can find 16 stations including elliptical machines, rowing machines, and agility track—all overlooking the South Saskatchewan River. The age-friendly circuit features wheelchair-accessible equipment and instructional plaques to help beginners get started.

Prince George’s “Try-it” Community Sport Discovery events

Pickleball, tai chi, and “learning to run” are just a few of the activities adults over 40 have had the chance to try out through Prince George’s “Try-It” events. A partnership between Engage Sport North, local community associations, and the City, Try-It events allow residents to experiment with new activities in an encouraging and judgment-free setting. While some Try-It events are open to all ages, a grant from the Union of BC Municipalities created a special series for those over 40.