Interview by Rachel Goldstein

Dawn Carr (she/her) was the executive director of the Canadian Parks Council (CPC) and the principal consultant of her own consulting agency, CarrPark. She was the executive director of the CPC from 2012 to 2021. Since this interview, Dawn Carr has accepted a new role with the Nature Conservancy of Canada which she started in September, 2021. Rachel reached her at her home in Peterborough, ON to talk about her experience as a woman working in parks. 

What was your professional career path?  

My passion for Parks started when I was 16 years old working as a junior ranger east of Algonquin Provincial Park, in South River, Ontario. Every summer after that I worked in a park while I was in school. I ended up pursuing Parks work at the University of Waterloo where I did an undergraduate degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies and then a master’s degree specializing in parks. It is there that my interest in how park agencies are managed took hold when I studied the effects of organizational change on employee commitment within Parks Canada. After that, I ended up going to Queen’s University in Kingston to do a Master of Public Administration. Intergovernmental work and community development became something I became very passionate about. Following grad school, I moved to Alberta with my partner to explore and see a different part of Canada. Fortuitously, a lot of my career path was almost serendipitous. I followed my interests. I pretty much only pursued things in and for parks because they represented everything I loved to study and experience. Windows of opportunity presented themselves through some well-intentioned perseverance and networking and I just stepped into the air of the vulnerable in order to figure out what would work for me. When we moved to Alberta, I worked to help develop a marketing plan for the Badlands area, which included Dinosaur Provincial Park. That experience led to a position with Alberta Parks as a senior planner.   

I could see myself, had I stayed in Alberta, growing into more of a senior government leadership role, but we wanted to start a family and so we moved here to Peterborough to be closer to our parents and siblings. I took five and a half years off work to focus on having kids. I think when you talk to other women that are ambitious and love the kind of work that they do, stepping away to have kids for a number of years feels very vulnerable and risky. It would have been a challenge to juggle a full-time career in a new city with babies and a partner with shift work so I chose to stay home for those first five years. By the time I got to the end of that period, while I absolutely wouldn’t have changed anything in the world for the experiences that I had with my kids at the time, I began to really worry whether or not I had lost my touch. If I stayed out of the game for too long, maybe I wouldn’t be marketable anymore, even though I still had that passion and ambition and desire to create positive and meaningful change.   

This executive director position opened up when I was 36. I hadn’t worked for five years but I had education, I had total passion and I put all of that on the line when I applied for the job. It was the happiest day, when it comes to career development, when I got the call to let me know I was successful in the executive director competition, and I’ve continued to absolutely love the role.  

Dawn signing her contract with the CPC

What is it like being a woman in a historically male dominated field?

I wouldn’t disagree with the comment that this field is currently male dominated, particularly at senior management levels. While I do think it’s changing, I acknowledge that I am an executive director that works for a male dominated board of directors. Over 7.5% of Canada’s entire land base is represented by the 14 individuals on the board and 3 are female. It rarely comes close to gender parity in the work that I do. When I was younger, coming out of university and even throughout my 30s, I honestly never thought twice about potential barriers because I always felt capable and deserving because of my education and experience.  Looking back on my career, I see how fortunate and privileged I have been and I can’t see a moment in time where I was discriminated against because of the fact that I’m a woman. I do sense that my style of management is different, possibly because I have an extreme comfort with collaboration and being comfortable in uncomfortable positions when there is diversity of perspectives around me. Whether or not that’s because I’m a woman, I’m not sure, but that’s definitely something that I identify with and I bring to the table.  

Collaborating and allowing people an opportunity to speak and be heard may or may not be attributed to a female way of working, but it seems to work effectively for managing a board of directors where the vast majority has always been male. I think there’s some advantage to that style of management and I believe that the more we bring diverse voices together, including intergenerational, the better.  

Has anything changed for women during your career in parks and conservation that you’ve seen?

I’m 44 now, so my career doesn’t feel that long to me yet. Looking back on the 20 years since I graduated from school to where I am now, I think there’s a recognition, not just with women, but with diversity as a whole – whether it’s skin colour or ethnicity or belief systems – that greater diversity in our Parks organizations is necessary. There’s also a recognition of the unknown biases that you bring to the table, the unconscious biases. There’s been such an overly white, western way of thinking that has very much dominated the park sector in Canada. That way of singular thinking has had huge repercussions and consequences for successfully conserving the very things that we all love. This needs to change in the future, including how we grow honest and equal relationships with Indigenous Peoples and colleagues from different cultures. I actually think that in many ways Park agencies are much better positioned to acknowledge our weaknesses in not being as diverse as we could be. In fact, I hope we are stepping in the right direction a little bit sooner than other sectors by acknowledging past wrongdoings and trying to rectify and reconcile those relationships moving forward. That’s new and I think it’s very exciting for the work that I do because I’m in a neat position to help collaboratively influence the whole parks community in continuing to move in that direction.

Do you think that safety is an issue for women in parks?

I wish I could say no, but that’s not the case. Safety is an issue for so many different people. For myself, would I go walking in my neighborhood park that has a path at night? No, I would not do that by myself. It probably depends on the time of day and when and where, but if we’re going to suggest a blanket statement on whether women are safe in parks at all times of day, no. I’m sure there are ways that we can make them safer, and it makes me sad that we need to even consider this since safety is a societal issue and is something bigger than what parks can achieve on their own. Beyond my local greenspaces, a lot of the parks I visit are because of my role as the executive director of the Canadian Parks Council, and this issue of safety is definitely something that I’ll reflect upon more in the future when we can visit distant parks again. 

How could we improve safety for women working in or using parks? 

Different park agencies are doing audits in campgrounds or beaches or otherwise to look at these places through an inclusion lens, and not just in terms of infrastructure. I think that’s a shift in thinking but we’re definitely not a hundred percent there yet. There’s potential for increasing the amount of support that we have for these places by enabling more people to have first-hand experiences in them. We would also change how these places are managed and presented if more women pursued and had access to parks as a career. A great place to start is to conduct an inclusion audit for visitors and organizations by bringing in diverse voices to comment on the experiences being offered, the barriers, potential improvements, and to listen to different perspectives on what a desired future could hold. This goes back to the beginning of our conversation; it’s only through those really diverse conversations where great things can occur. Our entire focus for the future has completely shifted because of these conversations around diversity and inclusion. Being more inclusive, and managing through that lens, would make our parks, and the organizations that manage them, safer for everyone, including women.

Are there gender specific barriers that women working in parks face? And if so, what are they? 

I’ve been really lucky that I work with the heads of Park agencies, so I don’t feel a barrier in terms of upward mobility at all. I have so much gratitude for the work that I’m doing right now and my access to making decisions within Park systems today. Issues of interest are at my fingertips and I often can’t believe that I’m in this position and that I get to work with such wonderful people. I didn’t face the barriers that I think others may have because of the privileges I’ve experienced given my background and history. I went to university, I have two graduate degrees, and I had a family that supported me in doing that. I’m really trying to be more aware and conscious of these gifts so that I can help eliminate barriers for other women that may have the exact same kind of desire and passion but may not have had similar opportunities. 

Do you see having a family as a challenge that women face working for Parks?

Yes, I do. I think that having a family is a difficult thing to juggle and I think women absolutely face those struggles more than men do. The pandemic has shown us that a lot of women are more affected by unemployment than men and are unable to get back into the workforce as fast as men because of family barriers or other challenges. I personally struggle with that sometimes because I always want to stay connected with my kids. I just got lucky finding a job where I’m working from home, and my kids can walk to and from school. So, my experience may not be typical. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I do, where I do it. 

What is one thing that you think Parks should know that they may not want to hear about women’s experiences either working in or using Parks?

I believe there are so many women that work in this sector who have special talents that could really contribute in significant ways, but they’re yet to be uncovered or unpacked. Whether you’re in a leadership role or just colleague to colleague, peer to peer, we need to spend time getting to know each other so that we can let all of those special talents reveal themselves and allow women to contribute to the work that we’re doing in ways that are not yet figured out. I think that’s where our growth and potential could also be, and it speaks again to being more inclusive and creating diverse opportunities to share perspectives. I don’t think we’ve created the kind of space that truly brings to light the special talents that women have to offer in parks.  

Do you have any advice for women wanting to get involved in conservation or advice for women wanting to be successful in leadership positions?

For all young women, I would underscore that they should never underestimate what they have to offer and with a clever mix of humility and confidence, I would encourage them to put what they’re passionate about on the table. I would also put faith in the process of working hard every day on something you love and to focus on that, because before you know it, when you look back, you’ll see this big body of work that you’ve been able to move forward. It’s different for every young woman that I meet, but I think it comes down to spending time getting to know yourself and really figuring out what it is that you love. This can take a long time. I would also say that it’s understandable to be nervous reaching out to women that have experience in conservation positions and that it may be surprising to know that so many of us are willing and excited to support young professionals through their career development. Another piece of advice is to just be honest. Don’t try and oversell yourself, even though you’re young. Just be honest about what it is you might have to bring to the table and what you would like to learn. I think honesty, a commitment to learning and working hard, and being willing to collaborate with others are really important assets which will grow to be even more important in the future.  

For all women, I think we need to embrace and nurture the ability to network and grow relationships. The warmth we can bring to conversations, while sharing our intellect and drive, is definitely something that may help to take us to the next level so that we can contribute in even more meaningful ways.  

What is something that you would tell your younger self who is just starting out in Parks or in conservation?

Be patient. I took five years off for maternity leave and I worried that I wasn’t ready to get a full-time job again based on other extenuating circumstances in my life. I wish I didn’t worry so much. I wish I just trusted myself and my ability. Things present themselves at the right time, so just trust that that window of opportunity will present itself at the right time – when it’s ready and when you’re ready. I wish I had been able to live in the moment and love the moment because we move through life at such a rapid pace. I loved my 20s. I absolutely loved my 30s, but there were parts of my life that I just wanted to rush through because I was so worried that I wasn’t going to get back to where I was. If I could do it all over, I would tell myself that the passion and skills that have been learned along the way, and the work and contributions that have been made haven’t vanished, they are consistent, true, and they remain. I wish I just trusted life’s processes and the journey, so that I was able to enjoy and learn from the moment that I was in. 

Is there anything else that you wanted to share?

I always want to leave these kinds of interviews with a sense of hope because I genuinely believe that the work that we’re doing on the land and with others is exceptional. It’s remarkable and it’s unlike any other sector of work. We touch so many ways of life from health to the economy to tourism. We’re in this weird field that brings all of these complexities together and we’re moving in a direction that I think is uncharted in terms of diversity, inclusion, and reconciling our relationships with Indigenous peoples, acknowledging again, our own unconscious bias. I feel nothing but hope right now. I feel like these past five years or so have been laying the foundation for enabling parks and protected areas in Canada to be beacons of light, globally. I truly believe we are going to be able to share our work in ways that others are going to discover and appreciate because it’s so open to different voices and new ways of knowing. This is the underlying optimism that I hope will always carry into everything I do.   

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