Resource Spotlight – SAR Autism Canada

Hyun Ho Cho is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Search and Rescue (SAR) situations are ones that no one wants to experience, yet these services are welcomed by those who find themselves in these unfortunate situations. But for some, SAR can add an additional level of distress that pushes them further from safety.

Recently I had the opportunity of interviewing Shanyn Silinski, the director of Search and Rescue Autism in Canada. SAR Autism is a program that plans and prepares resources for responders when it comes to people with autism in the context of search and rescue operations. According to Silinski, people with autism can present particular behaviours that may make search and rescue efforts uniquely challenging. Most agencies and organizations both in the private and public sectors may not consider neurodiverse people when it comes to planning infrastructure and services.

Having guided caving and backpacking trips in the mountain parks, I have experienced this capability gap firsthand. Neurodiverse people and how we respond to them is a perspective that I myself had never considered in regards to contingency planning and public safety. In order to make Parks more accessible and inclusive, it is important to have the necessary services and background resources to make the experience of these places safe for all. This means training public safety teams and responders on how to respond to members of our community who are neurodiverse and providing access to preventative education for people who are neurodiverse.

Normal Doesn't Exist

Going into the interview, I will admit my previous background knowledge on autism was somewhat limited. Unfortunately, this is quite common. The large majority of Canadians have a general idea of what autism is, without any actual knowledge of how autistic people perceive the world or how this might affect the way they respond to their environments. As a result, services that cater to neurodiverse people are less available across the board. Oftentimes in the context of parks, neurodiverse individuals and other minority groups are overlooked when it comes to policies and services. This includes public safety. However innocent this oversight may be, this affects many Canadians. When we look at the numbers this excludes quite a large segment of our population. According to Public Health Canada, an estimated 1 in 66 Canadian children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and that’s just the kids. That means approximately 540,000 Canadian citizens may not have access to the services they need in our parks.

Neurodiversity: How Does it Work? Why Does it Matter?

Before my conversation with Shanyn, I didn’t really understand what the word “neurodiversity” meant. In preparation for the interview, like any good millennial, I googled it. Let’s start with a definition. Merriam Webster’s dictionary has 3 definitions of the term neurodiversity. They are as follows:

  1. Individual differences in brain functioning regarded as normal variations within the human population.
  2. The concept that differences in brain functioning within the human population are normal and that brain functioning that is not neurotypical should not be stigmatized.
  3. The inclusion in a group, organization, etc. of people with different types of brain functioning.

Because neurodiversity refers to the variations in brain functioning across the human population as a whole, it refers to a broad range of behaviours and responses that apply to us all at varying degrees – not just people with autism, or other behavioural conditions. Neurodiversity, then, is just as much a part of someone’s identity as their skin colour, gender identity, sexual orientation, and physical ability.

If we are to make Canadian parks a more inclusive environment for all, it is imperative then that we make an effort to include individuals who are more neurodiverse, just as we would someone with a physical disability or a minority group. Individuals who are more neurodiverse should have services and amenities available to them on par with the rest of park users; parks leaders should not expect individuals who are more neurodiverse to adapt to our current park’s infrastructure. That may not always be possible. It means our parks or parts of them must change to accept and welcome these individuals.

What About Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or autism, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts brain development.  The result is that most individuals experience communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour. They may also have a markedly restricted range of activities and interests.
Autism Canada

In our interview, Silinski spoke to how people with autism may perceive the world differently from those of us who are more neurotypical. Specifically, she spoke to how people with autism may require extremely detailed descriptions and instructions in order to complete a task or recognize a situation. For example, individuals with autism may not recognize what being lost looks like without being told specific characteristics of what being lost feels like. Consequently, they may wander even further from where they were last seen. 

Photo courtesy of C Valdez /

Another example Silinski used was that of the “Hug a Tree” program for children, where individuals were instructed to hug a tree if they got lost. Where a neurotypical person might be able to read into the implied context of an instruction, an autistic person may not. Take, for example, the instruction “hug a tree if you’re lost.” Even without any further context, most people would be able to gather that the reason for this is so that they don’t wander, which makes it easier for responders to locate them. An autistic person, on the other hand, might instead fixate on what constitutes a huggable tree. In most situations, the implied meaning must be explicitly stated in order for them to fully understand the “why” of the instruction.

Additionally, individuals who have autism may bolt unexpectedly from unfamiliar situations or situations with too many stimuli. Oftentimes individuals with autism prefer familiar environments, objects, and people – in short, stimuli that they are accustomed to. This can be problematic in many rescue scenarios that have stimuli like flashing lights, bright colours, loud noises and hazards.

What Can Happen?

According to Silinski, because autistic individuals may respond differently to a crisis or an emergency situation, this can have a number of implications that responders may not be well trained to respond to. Oftentimes they retreat from rescuers or a safe location during a crisis, especially if it is unfamiliar or overstimulating. An example Silinski used was a building fire in the United States where everyone was evacuated safely from the building to a safe secondary holding area. However, one of the individuals who was rescued had autism. When transferred to the safe secondary holding area, they found it overwhelming and overstimulating and ran back to a familiar space, that space being the burning building.

Photo courtesy of Obi Onyeador /

Instances like these are called secondary incidents and are easily preventable with training on how to recognize and respond to signs of autism. Oftentimes people with autism will try to return to a place that makes them feel safe or that is familiar to them, even if that place is more dangerous than where they currently are. To an average responder, this may not be common knowledge and thus they may not be able to respond accordingly. Additionally, without understanding how an individual with autism perceives and recognizes safety we cannot make them feel safe in a crisis or emergency.

Inclusion As a Solution

That’s where SAR Autism comes in. SAR Autism aims to educate people with autism and give them back ownership of their own outdoor experiences so that they can recognize and prevent emergency situations. Additionally, they run courses for agencies, responders and volunteers on how to respond when an autistic person is lost or in an emergency situation. For example, having a “first aid kit” for neurodiverse individuals with items that they can stimulate themselves with to feel more at ease once they are found, or search methods that are less overwhelming for neurodiverse individuals and people with autism. By educating people with autism on how to be more proactive about their safety outside and teaching them how to recognize certain situations, like how to recognize when they are lost or what a rescue looks like, SAR Autism can help increase the chances of a successful recovery on both ends of the rescue.

By making spaces inclusive and safe for autistic people we can actually make parks a safer and more inclusive space for all. Silinski posits that by making spaces feel safe and inclusive for people with autism, we also make those spaces inclusive for a diverse range of individuals. Quiet safe spaces can help people healing from trauma, newcomers who want a more authentic experience of their surroundings, and Indigenous peoples who want to reconnect with their traditional lands. In sum, by making these spaces more accessible it does a service to all, with minimal impact to the existing visitor experience.  

What other safety resources do you know of that help achieve inclusivity in parks? Let us know in the comments below!

Reconciliation – Review of Elder in the Making

Cowboy and Chris at Ranch. Photo courtesy of Elder in the Making.

Ebany Carratt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Throughout writing my series of blog posts that takes into consideration the ideas around reconciliation and the awful histories of oppression Indigenous people have faced, I often worry that I, as a non-Indigenous person, am not doing enough or I don’t understand the full picture of what this process means. Yet, despite feeling frustrated by not knowing all the answers at once, I still feel strongly inspired and motivated to do what I can to push for progress and change in my society for generations that will come after me. One documentary series that has significantly helped me understand the history, but also learn the importance of protecting the land and advocating for justice, was the Elder in the Making series published in late 2015.

Chris and Cowboy on a Journey. Photo courtesy of Hidden Story Productions Ltd.

The series follows Chris Hsiung, a first-generation Chinese-Canadian, and Cowboy Smithx, a Blackfoot First Nation, on a spiritual journey throughout Alberta learning about the history of Treaty 7, reconciliation, and what it means to be an elder in Indigenous culture. While the similarities between these two may not seem apparent to someone from the outside looking in, Hsiung likens the experiences of the Blackfoot to that of his own by stating that “both have to navigate two cultures and two languages” and have faced similar tribulations and difficulties with reaffirming their identities within Canada as they’ve made their way through life. Yet, unlike Hsiung, Cowboy has had to deal with being seen as a “foreigner in his own land”.

Narcisse Blood - A Wise Elder. Photo courtesy of Elder in the Making.
Narcisse Blood - A Wise Elder. Photo courtesy of Hidden Story Productions Ltd.
Exploring the Path to Reconciliation

The film introduces us to many knowledgeable and well-spoken elders and those who we can consider ‘elders in the making’, including the late Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot film director, teacher, and visionary. From speaking with these many insightful individuals, the viewers are able to explore what the path to reconciliation looks like and see the meaningful and respectful ways to maintain and protect the land for future generations. The best way this film beautifully expresses this need for protecting the land and empowering Indigenous cultures is by frequently using the past to paint a comprehensive image of how a treaty “signed in good faith” had fallen into a disaster within a few years.

St. Paul’s Residential School Gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Elder in the Making.
St. Paul’s Residential School Gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Hidden Story Productions Ltd.

Countless promises made by governments were broken. The buffalo, a keystone species and sacred to Indigenous people, were intentionally wiped from existence in the prairies and perpetuated a horrific famine and furthered the dependence on Industrialism for prairie tribes. Diseases such as measles, smallpox and mumps were introduced into Indigenous populations and catastrophic numbers of people, unthinkable today, were extinguished from North America. Patronizing laws such as The Indian Act, signed even before Treaty 7, show that early Canada treated First Nations people as wards of the state that needed to be civilized and assimilated. Our first prime minister, who approved residential schools, was motivated by the thought that Indigenous people who went to school on their land and practised their traditions, were nothing more than “a savage who can read and write”. All this, along with the banning of many other spiritual and ceremonial traditions that define peoples and cultures, had a genocidal effect that has devastated generations and will continue to do so without proper reconciliation.

A Call for Humanity

Yet despite all of this pain and horrific accounts of history, Elder in the Making does not lay blame. Instead, it calls for the better aspects of humanity. The empathetic side of humanity that puts themselves in the shoes of those who have been wronged to work together while protecting the land and all the entities that depend on it for a better tomorrow. This is what being an elder is about. According to Chris Hsiung: “It’s not about being Blackfoot or being Chinese. It’s that sense of being human and being able to connect with our humanity in a way that recognizes that we come from a long line of generations and that there are many more generations ahead of us that we have to take care of”.

I know personally from reading countless articles on this topic that I have often felt confused about where I stand as a non-Indigenous child of an immigrant. So seeing someone who comes from a similar background as I do learn what this means from elders and other elders in the making, has provided me with well-needed clarity moving forward. Reconciliation, just like a treaty, is an ongoing process that must be revisited and renewed time and time again. It is up to all of us, no matter our backgrounds, to make treaty with each other on the land which sustains us.

So I hope after reading this blog you will want to watch this wonderful documentary too! What other documentaries or resources have helped develop your understanding on reconciliation?

Reconciliation – A Review of ‘Ha Ling Peak’

Preview image of Ha Ling Peak documentary by Brian Zimmerman

By Ebany Carratt

Ebany Carratt is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree.

Growing up in Saskatchewan, I always had a strong appreciation for the Rockies. Every summer since I can remember, my family would make our yearly pilgrimage to the Banff area where my brothers and I would make a game of trying to accurately name every mountain that we could see outside of our car window. Approaching our stay in Canmore was always the best part and we’d frequently try to petition reasons to live there permanently to our parents, with little success. Nestled in a valley surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped limestone peaks, I always assumed Canmore was the perfect place to live. So I was shocked to learn in my early 20s that one of my favourite features, Ha Ling Peak, was not always called by that name.

Aerial view of Ha Ling, Canmore, Alberta.
Aerial view of Ha Ling. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User Kevin Lenz

According to the documentary ‘Ha Ling Peak’ by Bryce Zimmerman that aired on CBC in 2018, the story goes that a Canadian Pacific Railway cook named Ha Ling climbed the mountain in under 10 hours for a bet. Impressed by his abilities, the townspeople of Canmore decided to name the peak after him, but unfortunately, through time the mountain lost his given name and was simply referred to as “Chinaman’s Peak” well into the 1990s despite the term being a well-known racial slur. 

It took months for people like Roger Mah Poy, a long term resident and school teacher in Canmore, to publicly debate and educate people on why the name should be changed and how the term “chinaman” deprives Chinese people of their humanity, of their names. Looking to his children as a motivator for his activism, he said, “I want them to grow up in a world where it shouldn’t matter their racial background”.

It wasn’t easy to get public approval on changing the name, and even today, some still refer to the peak by the old name. The name change is something that I am personally glad happened, as I have never known the peak as anything other than Ha Ling Peak.

Reconciliation In Action

Not only did this documentary help me become more aware of what reconciliation looks like in action, but it also made me think more on the ways that names, especially when associated with places, hold so much political and historical power. It makes you question what power dynamics are at play when place naming occurs. Despite the success of renaming the peak to Ha Ling, it’s important to become aware that even before colonialism and before Ha Ling, Indigenous people had names for these places. They had emotional, traditional, and spiritual connections to those names that are unknown to people like me who only know one version of history.

Yet, through reconciling with the communities who have been harmed through exclusion and allowing them to play active roles in deciding what ways to reach reconciliation, we can change the narrative so that younger generations will know these histories naturally and understand the diverse world views that have existed before we settled here. Even Mah Poy said he approached the renaming of the peak with “ambivalence” because he was conscious of the fact that there was an Indigenous name for that peak, and a lovely story behind it. 

A Work in Progress

Despite the peak being renamed in 1997, many places within Alberta alone hold offensive, derogatory, or exclusionary names that Indigenous communities want to change. And while we’ve had some success especially in 2020 with the new naming of Upper Stoney Trail and Bald Eagle Peak, there is still much work to be done. For years the Stoney Nakoda people have been lobbying to change Tunnel Mountain to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain (translation), with little success. We need to take this time to question the ways that supposedly inoffensive names (like tunnel mountain) or perceptions of nature/ethical place maintain a system of exclusion and inequality. 

View of the town of Canmore from the summit of Ha Ling. Photo by Bryce Zimmerman.
View of the town of Canmore from the summit of Ha Ling. Photo by Bryce Zimmerman.

It is my hope that through my series of blog posts exploring what reconciliation means through a consideration of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), the Indigenous Circle of Experts Report (ICE), and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (TRC); that I can highlight the many different ways that we can achieve reconciliation by including Indigenous people, cultures, world views, and approaches to conserving the land into every aspect of national parks. 


Webinar Summary – Black Experiences in Parks

Black Experiences in Parks Webinar

Co-hosted with Park People and BlackAFinSTEM

In the ‘Black Experiences in Parks in Canada’ webinar, the panelists explored the underrepresentation of the BIPOC community in Canadian parks and protected areas, including staffing. Frustrated with “business as usual” and the lack of government engagement and action, BIPOC grassroots organizations have taken matters into their own hands. As the Canadian population changes and minority groups become the new majority, parks agencies across the country will need to better accommodate and involve this growing demographic in order to survive. Attendees of the webinar had an opportunity to provide feedback and commit actions in order to make parks more inclusive for BIPOC individuals in their respective jurisdictions. Read their commitments and calls to action here.


  • Jacqueline L. Scott, University of Toronto (OISE)
  • Demiesha Dennis, BrownGirlOutdoorWorld
  • Judith Kasiama, ColourTheTrails
  • Rhiannon Kirton, Western University

5 Key Takeaways

  1. The impacts of colonialism can still be felt today, as many BIPOC individuals feel unwelcome or are seen as out of place in outdoor spaces. Systemic racism continues to be an issue in Canada’s parks, where managers and people in power are too uncomfortable to partake in discussions concerning race.
  2. Opportunities for grants and parks-related education are often “hidden in plain sight” for BIPOC peoples. Access to funding and career opportunities still remains more readily available to a majority white beneficiary audience.
  3. Financial barriers are one of the primary obstacles that impede greater inclusivity of BIPOC individuals in Canadian parks and contributes to their underrepresentation.
  4. Many of those involved in the Canadian outdoor industry come from a predominately white background and operate from a high place of power and privilege, and the lack of diversity in recreational marketing further attests this issue.
  5. Significant actions are required to facilitate greater involvement and representation of the BIPOC community in parks participation and employment. This includes creating trust and rapport with BIPOC communities, collecting race-based data to determine BIPOC needs and cater programs to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity for involvement

Queen of the Peaks – Pattie Gonia Brings Drag to the Outdoors

By Rachel Goldstein

Rachel Goldstein is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. These positions are funded by Canada’s Green Jobs Program and supported by Project Learning Tree

Deep in the heart of Oregon, USA, lives a 6’3” drag queen by the name of Pattie Gonia. Pattie can often be seen in her trademark leather platform boots climbing mountains, ascending peaks, or catching a wave. Recognizable by her signature flaming locks and the fact that she’s, well, a drag queen, Pattie crosses boundaries and sets new standards in the world of the outdoors, not unlike her namesake.

Popularized in the late 1800s by the Black Queer community, drag has developed from a fringe movement to a mainstream phenomenon. In essence, it is a way for members of the queer community to embrace and express an artform. Drag is a performance of gender that comments on the performativity of gender itself. In mainstream media, it is typically a queer man performing as a woman, though drag can encompass all gender identities and sexual orientations. If you are struggling to find the connection between drag and the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership, consider the queen who is branching out of the typical femme architecture of drag to embrace the outdoors in her art. Ms. Pattie Gonia is a self-described “lady in the streets but a freak on the peaks”. She is the intersectional, environmentalist drag queen that we all need. Pattie describes drag as “an artform that is most oftentimes performed by queer people that bends gender as a means of self-discovery and performance”. For Pattie, it is also a means of taking political action and drawing attention to the climate crisis and the need for environmental sustainability.

Category is: Environmental Sustainability

I recently spoke with Wyn Wiley (he/him/they), the man behind the queen, Pattie Gonia (she/her/they) about his experience bringing drag to the outdoors.* Wyn is relatively new to the drag scene, having started performing as Pattie just over two years ago. His unique take on drag, however, has amassed Pattie over 300,000 followers on Instagram and international attention in that short period of time. Wyn’s drag is unique for many reasons. For anyone familiar with mainstream drag, Wyn’s approach is a polar opposite. Drag in the media is presented as femme-passing, high-fashion, and runway ready. 

While Pattie Gonia can certainly encompass these traits, she often chooses to simply adorn herself in hiking gear and a pair of thigh-high platform boots, sometimes accompanied by a wig, makeup, or a gown, but never without the boots. When I asked her about the importance of her boots, she reminded me that drag is simply another artform. Painters will bring their easels and canvases into the outdoors to capture a scene, photographers will bring their cameras, and Pattie will bring her boots.

Pattie also brings her unique take to her performances. A typical drag performance is often in a bar or club setting. Pattie prefers to perform in the outdoors. She starts off by speaking to her audience about environmental concepts or diversity in the outdoors and ends on a performance. Any questions I had for her about feeling duty-bound to incorporate environmentalism into her drag were rendered irrelevant when she informed me that “there are many days I’ll just get in drag, or just get in heels and just perform outdoors and it’s not for anyone but Mother Nature herself.

“Every time I’m out there in heels is like a performance, no matter if even just a little squirrel on a tree sees it, or if it’s just for myself.”

When I first encountered Pattie’s drag, my first thought was simply, how? How does someone unite the artform of drag with the inherent ruggedness of the outdoors? This is what Wyn had to say: “I think for the longest time I loved the outdoors and for the longest time I really cherished my queer identity. And I felt like the two had to be so separate because I thought that the outdoors was this masculine story. I didn’t think that the outdoors would ever be a place for me as a queer person. But it turns out that queer people have kind of always been in the outdoors and nature is just incredibly queer. I think it very much happened by accident, but ever since, I’ve been intersecting two worlds that I never thought could be together.”

Nature As An Equalizer

The perceived masculinity of the outdoor world is a daunting obstacle many people are faced with. Working out our place in what should be a neutral ground is a challenging feat. Pattie has managed to carve out a space for herself on the trails despite these challenges. She described her reception in the outdoor world as polarizing; people either love Pattie or hate her. A point Wyn was intent on emphasizing, however, was his role as a straight-passing, white man. Though hiking in leather boots and a bold lip is certainly not the easiest way to blend in, he explained that “a lot of my life isn’t easy, but it’s easier than most”, referring to the unique experiences of visible minorities in the outdoor industry.

"For the longest time I loved the outdoors and for the longest time, I really cherished my queer identity. And I felt like the two had to be so separate because I thought that the outdoors was this masculine story.​"
Wyn Wiley

The ability to present as straight in his daily life has also contributed to Wyn’s love of drag. Starting out in the drag world, he said, “I think there was a lot of femininity that needed to release inside of me, and I think that there was a lot of life, coming from Nebraska, that kept me really closeted even though I was out as a gay man, and drag was that freedom to me.

“Drag is just a beautiful freedom that lets me keep on pursuing what it’s like to explore femininity and the outdoors and to do drag in a space that I love so much.”

The outdoors do not take notice of gender identity or sexual orientation and so nature, in an ideal world, should be an equalizer. The outdoor adventure industry need not be gendered, and yet it is. This is something I have been pondering in my role at CPCIL and was something I was eager to discuss with Wyn.

“I think it’s important to have drag and LGBTQ representation in the outdoor community because queer people have always been in the outdoors,” Wyn said. 

“People just haven’t been turning their eyes on them. I think we’ve spent so long in an outdoor industry, an outdoor community looking for really traditional hero stories, often in tune with masculinity and the hero’s quest, and a lot of this conquering mindset. I’m here and I think a lot of queer people are here to find the outdoors as a place for healing and for community and for joy. I think also there’s this narrative in queer culture to run to metropolitan cities for acceptance  — I want people to run into the woods for acceptance, to get lost a little bit and to find way more about who they are. I think there’s a lot of beauty to be found there.”

Wyn also emphasized the importance of increasing representation of LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors as an issue of safety. The outdoors should be a safe space for all, and increasing queer visibility is one way to show the LGBTQ+ community that there is a safe space for them in the outdoors. 

Wyn was first introduced to the outdoors through the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts have often been criticized for their role in promoting heteronormativity in the outdoors and excluding queer and gender non-conforming children and staff. When asked about his experience, Wyn replied that he was grateful for an avenue into the outdoors, but that children now are exposed to much healthier and safer ways to access the outdoors through organizations such as Unlikely Hikers and other queer-friendly organizations

Intersectional Environmentalism

Wyn’s commitment to activism is something that I think resonates with several Parks communities. Working in conservation is not simply a day job — for many, it becomes a lifestyle. We think about it every time we use single-use plastics or hop on an airplane. The same is true for Wyn. 

I asked him how he avoids burnout from the constant pressure from both the LGBTQ+ community and the environmental community, as well as the pressure he puts on himself to do his part. It turns out, the CPCIL community is not so different from the world of eco-drag. We all turn to the outdoors when we get overwhelmed. Wyn periodically escapes to the wilderness, unplugs, and unwinds with our closest mutual friend — Mother Nature. In his own words, “rest is a radical act of resistance”.

Pattie’s commitment to environmentalism does not stop at activism, however. She incorporates sustainability into her drag in the form of upcycled costuming. She sports wigs and gowns made out of sea debris, trash from quarantine, and old newspapers. In a documentary called Dear Mother Nature, created in collaboration with the outdoor company, REI, Pattie wears a gown made entirely of repurposed plastic bags. At her Sundance debut, where she presented the film, she wore a gown curated out of upcycled tutus, old sweatshirts, towels, and jeans. I asked Wyn how Pattie’s ecowarrior persona has affected his daily life. He first corrected me, saying he felt more like an “eco-muggle”, but went on to explain.

“I’m very much just trying to figure this out like everyone is, but I think realistic change happens when I can wake up and be one per cent more of an ally to the world than I was the day before,” he said. “And when I say the world, I mean to people and our planet because I think that environmentalism needs to be intersectional. We need to ally each other as diverse groups of people and we need to ally for all marginalized communities, and I think we need to ally for nature as well. I’m learning so much every day just how possible it is to wake up and be one percent better. It’s never going to look like these big flashy changes in my life. The work is the little one percent things in the cracks; all the nooks and crannies where I can bring kindness into the world or where I can use one less piece of plastic or where I can learn one more thing or unlearn one more thing. I count all of that as caring for our environment.”

It turns out we are not so different from the heel stomping drag queen that is Pattie Gonia. We are all just trying our best to reduce our environmental impact on this world and spread the word however we can. When I asked Wyn what Pattie’s next steps are, he told me he’s going to continue to fill the niche he currently occupies. Pattie has created a unique platform and will continue to speak out for the environment in the way that only she can. Wyn concluded our interview with this gentle reminder: “never forget that what you do is activism too, just behind the scenes”. So, I’ll task you, reader, with the same thing. Never forget that what you do is activism and is making a difference, whether it is writing policy to protect ecosystem services, interviewing a drag queen, or gluing on a lace front wig and taking it to the trails.


* A note about pronouns: In this piece, with permission from Wyn, I have used both male and female pronouns for Pattie/Wyn interchangeably. Wyn gave me the following explanation of the importance of using the correct pronouns, which I think is a useful introduction or refresher for anyone uncomfortable or unsure about the concept:

“Pronouns are a way that allies can show their love and respect for queer people. When we say pronouns, they’re not just our chosen pronouns, they are our pronouns. I think that there’s a connotation out there that these are our chosen pronouns when really, it’s not how we identify, it’s what our identity is. Pronouns are as easy as just using the kind of gender identifiers that people want to use. I think it’s a really safe bet if you don’t know someone’s pronouns to just assume they/them pronouns so as not to possibly misgender them. I think they/them pronouns is becoming an identity that a lot of queer people find home in. Merriam-Webster just updated the definition of they/them in the dictionary to mean nonbinary pronouns. Entering words into our normal vocabulary like queer, nonbinary, and they/them pronouns, can really help us create an inclusive space for all.”

If you would like to learn more about other people in the outdoor community doing excellent work to promote LGBTQ+ representation and other forms of intersectional environmentalism, please check out the following for a brief introduction.

Conservation Through Reconciliation Resources

Working Towards a Solutions Bundle

The Conservation through Reconciliation Partnership is working with its partners to create The Solutions Bundle, an interactive website designed in Ethical Space to help build knowledge, capacity, and relationships in support of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) and Indigenous conservation leadership. The Solutions Bundle will combine the concepts of a western toolkit and an Indigenous medicine bundle and will serve as an example of Two-Eyed Seeing where Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems will be valued equally.  

The CRP is aiming to launch the Solutions Bundle in June 2021. In the meantime, we have created a temporary research engine to house resources and help share information.

Please visit to learn more. To contribute resources or share ideas for improving the search function, please contact

Playgrounds in Park Settings – Taking a Step Back on the Path Forward

This blog post was submitted as part of the 2019 Park Leaders Development Program.

When you think of playgrounds, what comes to mind?  

Photo Credit: Saskatchewan Parks

For many years, playgrounds in Saskatchewan Parks have meant the traditional steel structures with slides, climbers, monkey bars and swings.  And for many years we didn’t think much of it.  But what if we could use play spaces to further connect our youngest park visitors to the beautiful environments our parks exist within?  Over the past number of years, the idea of natural playgrounds has surfaced.  Natural playgrounds are just that – a play space designed to emphasize the natural environment, consisting of natural features such as boulders, logs, tree stumps, and other natural elements.  

Photo Credit: Juan Pablo Risso/Google– Westmoreland Park, Oregon

When the idea of natural playgrounds first arose at Saskatchewan Parks several years ago, it was met with concerns regarding how stringent playground safety standards could be achieved and the potential extra maintenance requirements to keep natural elements safe.  We continued on with replacing old, deteriorated play structures with new standard play structures which met all safety standards, were turn key products for supply and installation, and were cost effective and efficient to deliver.  

Recently though, continued thoughts from various park staff regarding the merits of natural play, coupled with advancements and research in this field, have prompted further consideration. We recognize the path forward may mean taking a step back.  We have an opportunity to utilize natural play spaces in our parks to emphasize connections to the natural environment for our next generation of park visitors.  There are some great ideas regarding how interpretive and education components could be incorporated into natural play spaces.

At the Spring 2019 CPCIL Park Leaders course I had the opportunity to share the challenges and considerations we are facing in our playground program with park leaders from across Canada.  It was inspiring because I could see the audience was intrigued by what I had to share.  It is clear other jurisdictions are faced with these same questions.

I was challenged to take the idea to a new audience to garner additional feedback – that audience being my nine-year old daughter!  I started by sharing my presentation, the concept of natural playgrounds versus traditional playgrounds.  I then asked questions about her ideal play space in a park.  While my daughter found the concept and photos of natural playgrounds “cool” she still gravitated towards traditional play elements like swings and monkey bars.  It’s not that she isn’t interested in the concept, but it’s just that – a concept.  It’s tough for anyone to imagine something aside from what they have always known.  And she has always known traditional playgrounds. 

However, an interesting thing happened on a recent camping trip with my family.  Late August weather in Saskatchewan was not conducive to a beach day and so my kids instead requested to go on a walk to the playground.  On our walk we took the scenic route, a wandering park trail, that leads to the beach, and eventually up another trail to the playground.  This is a ten-minute walk.  However, we arrived at the playground two hours later!

Photo Credit: Jennifer Szakacs

The kids were preoccupied with exploring along the trail, followed by the realization the beach was actually a fantastic spot we had all to ourselves on this cooler, close to fall day.  Even though the temperature was cool, the perfectly calm water and sun with no wind made for great weather to sit and enjoy skipping rocks.  Soon after the shovel and pail that were meant for the man-made sandbox at the playground were being used to build masterpieces on the beach.  And not long after that we sent for bathing suits for the kids so they could get out of their wet clothes and enjoy the water.  We did make a short stop at the playground afterwards, before heading back for a very late lunch, but it was the experience on the beach that stood out. We visit the beach at the park all the time, however I looked at this experience differently, as did my daughter with her knew found knowledge of nature based play experiences.  She realized that while the playground may have been our plan, our experience was elevated by our time connecting directly with nature.        

For me, this drives the point home that while traditional playgrounds may be an amenity our visitors have come to expect, it is the natural elements of our beautiful spaces which draws them to the park in the first place.  We have an opportunity to do more now that we know more.  Remaining open to thinking outside the box could allow us to incorporate the natural features of our parks into play-based educational and interpretive experiences for our youngest park visitors to enjoy.

Improved Accessibility in New Brunswick Provincial Parks

(Photo Courtesy New Brunswick Parks)

In 2005, I started work with NB’s provincial parks while finishing University and accessibility was starting to become part of the core curriculum around that time.  In 2007, I had the honour to attend the Parks System Leadership course (PSL, the precursor to the Canadian Parks Collective) which was held at William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis, Alberta.

My experience at the PSL course, but more specifically of seeing William Watson Lodge – a purpose built accessible wilderness lodge – first-hand set me on a course to replicate its core values here in New Brunswick. I told Don Carruthers Den Hoed while I was there I wanted to bring it to my province, and my principle since that time has been to promote free, self-guided accessibility throughout our parks system.

This year I got to realize a big part of my accessibility dreams  with the introduction of improved facilities and new equipment in our provincial parks and a statement from our Minister of Tourism, Heritage and Culture that “All New Brunswickers deserve access to high-quality physical and recreational activities. I am delighted that our parks offer better access to people with limited mobility and physical disabilities, as well as new equipment, so they can enjoy nature and experience more of what our parks have to offer on the beach, in the water or down the mountain.”

Upgrades to administration offices, including accessible washrooms, campsites and cabins  and the introduction four Hippocampe wheelchairs, three WaterWheels floating beach wheelchairs and one adaptive mountain bike – the Bowhead Reach – are available this year (2019) in NB provincial parks, free of charge.

Bringing the Bowhead Reach bike to NB was icing on the cake though. I had the privilege of meeting its inventor – Christian Bagg – at another CPC led initiative, the 2016 Canadian Parks Summit in Canmore. This incredible piece of equipment and Christian’s story of determination to lead his own adventures inspired me to try and bring him and the bike to NB.

Josh, a Para-Olympian,  you see on the second bike from the left in the photo above had never heard of the bike before, much less had he been able to explore the trails at the park at his doorstep. Before we got underway with the photo shoot he’d volunteered to help us with, we gave him some time to ‘play’ and get used to the bike. I took him out on the trails and inevitably there were a couple of trees across the path. I managed to lift one enough for him to get out under, but couldn’t budge the other.

Josh was immediately trying to figure out how to backup and I could see a bit of disappointment on his face – this was supposed to be an milestone where he’d have freedom of choice  – and then I clued in and said “just go over it”… Josh  -“Really???… Me – “you bet!”. After that it was a full on sprint for me to even consider keeping up and I’m sure his smile was wider than the handlebars for the rest of the day.

Thank you to the CPC and my NB team for affording me the privilege of meeting park leaders from across the country. It’s given me some of the proudest moments of my life and now we’re getting to inspire a new generation of park lovers, one self-guided adventure at a time!