The Parks Canada Palisades Stewardship Education Centre is a project that cultivates youth as stewards of the future for the national parks of Canada. Set in Jasper National Park, the program provides the opportunity for young people to connect directly with the beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape of the Rocky Mountains.
The centre offers Canadian students from grade 9 to 12 the opportunity to participate in four-day on-site educational and recreational programs, designed to foster an understanding and appreciation of nature and of their National Parks. As well as the opportunity to connect directly with the many significant natural features of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, within Jasper National Park there are five national historic sites representing heritage themes important to the exploration and development of Western Canada.
James Bartram is the Program Lead, Stewardship Education. When asked in 2006 to write a business case for a program available to all Canadian youth, he says he was influenced by research including Chalwa and Tanner – who have studied what motivates people to take action to protect the environment; Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods; and Canadian naturalist and painter Robert Bateman. ‘Beyond these Parks Canada conducted some significant social science with focus groups across the country that really highlighted the need to reconnect with a broad cross section of the Canadian public.’
The Palisades programs include classroom courses, fieldwork and mountain recreation. Students experience the ecology and culture of the mountain ecosystem through programs derived from current research and management in the mountain parks. The program offers an extension of school curricula in subjects including science, biology, geology, geography, earth sciences, wildlife studies, archaeology, aboriginal studies, history, outdoor education, and physical education.
Working in close partnership with Grande Yellowhead Public Schools, students in the province of Alberta may take Palisades courses for ‘credit’ – the completed subjects contribute to the students’ high school graduation requirements. For schools outside of Alberta or younger participants, Palisades also offers shorter, curriculum-linked programs in the down seasons.
Bartram says establishing and maintaining some subjects can be difficult, particularly in aboriginal studies. ‘In our area there are approximately 26 self-identified aboriginal groups that have a historic connection to the land that’s now the park. Working with individuals or individual groups can be politically difficult,’ he says.
However, there has been some success. ‘Our most significant success has been the “Aboriginal youth leadership program” that is in its fourth year – this program is led by our local school division and is open to 16 schools in a 300 kilometre radius,’ he says. ‘We are working towards a program with a local youth leadership group, where aboriginal youth come to the centre to lead other youth in their traditional games and activities.’
The Palisades program isn’t just about curriculum-based learning and credit points – there’s also a large emphasis on recreation during the school trips. Opportunities include hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing and kayaking with fully qualified instructors. Students discover how nature looks, feels and smells, guided by Parks Canada experts. They learn about managing the risks inherent in wild places and the rewards of taking the time to truly connect.
Bartram says it’s difficult to pick which of the programs or activities are most popular with the students, but says it’s the personal development aspect of the program that has the biggest effect:
‘Of course we care about the detail like will they remember about a specific species at risk, or how to recreate safely in the mountain environments – but when the youth talk about how the shared experience has brought them together or broken down cliques, that’s significant,’ he says. ‘We always tell the youth that of all the learning that will take place here, if there is only one thing that they remember we hope it is that “all of this belongs to them – all Canadians for all time”.’
Given the success of the program, Bartram says consideration has been given to expansion through partnership programs with scout and church camps, and even some temporary seasonal programs. The Palisades team is also exploring the possibility of extending their programs to a ‘gap year’ after high school courses, and also working with universities.
As Bartram points out, it’s too early to gauge whether programs like Palisades are enough to inspire young people with lifelong values of caring for the environment, and while he says anecdotally the signs are good, there is not yet any longitudinal data to validate the claim. But it’s hard to imagine that a program that immerses young people in one of the most breathtaking natural environments in the world won’t leave a lasting impression. Only time will tell.