Jane Park is a fire and vegetation specialist for the Banff Field Unit for Parks Canada. As part of CPCIL’s Inclusion and Equity profile series, here’s what she shared with us on her experience as a Korean Woman and Park Leader.
When did you decide that a career in parks was right for you?
I think I had never thought of it until a friend of mine mentioned the Park Warden Service to me when I was in grad school (M.Sc. in Forest Ecology at University of Calgary). So I had never contemplated it at all as a career path. I obviously love the outdoors and love doing field work. I’m very outdoorsy, but it just didn’t even dawn on me as a career path until my friend sent me an email and said, “Hey, the Warden Services is hiring I think you’d like this job. You should apply.” So I did.
What was it like growing up as a person of colour in Winnipeg?
Winnipeg is super multicultural. There’s a lot of different immigrants that have moved to Winnipeg and there’s a huge Indigenous population. So I always kind of grew up around a lot of multiculturalism and acceptance of different cultures; mind you the racism in Winnipeg against Indigenous people is quite pronounced and hopefully that’s changed by now, I didn’t really notice it just because I’m Korean by my ethnicity, and there was a large Korean community. So I grew up with a lot of Korean people, but I also did notice that there weren’t that many other Asian kids and very few other ethnicities and Indigenous kids at my school, which was in a middle-class white neighbourhood. I had people that were in my class that were other people of colour, but I didn’t have very many friends that were people of colour because there just weren’t very many in the neighborhood I lived in. So it was kind of like, and it still is to some extent the same way, where I have my family life, which is extremely defined by my ethnicity. I’m proud Korean Canadian and that’s what I identify most with is the fact that I am Korean and my parents were immigrants here in the early 60s, but then I’ve got the rest of my life that doesn’t have a lot of diversity because the Bow Valley and Banff are not very diverse. It’s diverse in visitation, but not as diverse in residents.
I had never really experienced racism personally until I moved to Alberta unfortunately. When I first moved to Banff, I think because there are so many different cultures of visitors here, I did experience a fair bit of racism. There’s a lot of racism against Asian tourists, so people for some reason think because I was born here, they’re really okay with saying racist things around me because maybe I just didn’t seem as Korean as other people. And I think that still exists to some extent now. It was definitely eye-opening when I moved here. I noticed when I go home I don’t feel like I stick out or that everybody thinks I’m a tourist. Even by visual appearance when I go to a reserve or anything like that, I feel more comfortable there sometimes than when I am just here in town because I blend in and not stick out as the only BIPOC.
How do you feel when connecting with Nature? Is this an emotional, spiritual, or physical experience for you?
I would say probably a combination of all three. I think my connection with nature started when I was a little kid. My best friend’s grandmother took care of us a lot of the time and she was a huge gardener. Her entire backyard from the second you opened the door to the fence was all plants and flowers and she taught me about all the trees that grew around. So it wasn’t necessarily nature as in a national park; it was more urban nature and cultivated plants/vegetables, but we spent tons of time outside and she taught me all about different plants and things. I think that’s where that came from because my parents are not super outdoorsy. That connection started at a young age, then grew through high school on canoe or camping trips with my friends, and then into university where I realized I really liked spending all of my time outside. So I wanted to know what kind of job I could get doing that.
What are you working on right now in your work and what are your interests?
I run the fire and vegetation program here, so I’ll kind of explain both sides. On the one side it’s the fire side of things, basically it’s the side of the program that fights fires. We do wildfire suppression, but a lot of what we do is implementing prescribed fires. That’s probably a big part and the best part of my job. I’m an Incident Commander on one of the National Incident Management teams, which means that throughout the fire season, I’m on call and I lead a team of fire management personnel. So far, that’s taken me mostly to the north or western parts of Canada, but then it took me to Australia for 37 days in 2020 during the bush fires. That’s a huge part of what I do. Things like research monitoring, fire suppression, fuel management, logging, hand thinning, and fire smart, all that kind of stuff are also included. Then on the other side of my job is the vegetation management side. It is kind of funny that it’s separate because fire is vegetation management, but a lot of that work is with species at risk (like Whitebark Pine and limber Pine) and managing non-native species (invasive vegetation or non-native plants and weeds). We also work a lot with the developers and project managers to do reclamation and restoration so that there are minimal impacts to the soils and vegetation within the park, and all the monitoring and research that’s associated with that aspect. Those two streams are basically what I’m working on and then in addition to that, I’ve taken on a bunch of different working groups/advisory groups and other sorts of things related to diversity and inclusion. I currently sit on the Parks Canada national fire management program’s working group about diversity and inclusion. I’ve worked with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, which is an umbrella agency that all fire agencies fall under, on this initiative and there’s one advisory Group locally within our field unit on diversity and inclusion as well. So in addition to my regular fire and vegetation job, it’s a bunch of diversity stuff too.
What is it like being a Korean woman in a more white-male dominated field? Has that affected your personal journey at all?
Yeah, I think it has. I didn’t notice until more recently. Fire management is probably the whitest portion of this career that I’ve been a part of. When we go to different provinces, there are Indigenous fire crews and people of colour that do work with the environment, but largely, in the Incident Management teams and in the commanders, there’s none. I can probably count on one hand the number of people of colour (POC) that I encounter at an Incident Management Team level. It’s very non-diverse and has very low numbers of women too. So it’s definitely noticeable now that this is part of the conversation, but up until then I don’t think I really noticed. When I really did start to notice it was when I started to get more into a leadership role. How I spoke up or what I would say would be taken differently than the male or white-majority people I work with. When they’d say the same thing, it would come out or be perceived differently than when I did. I think a lot of that maybe has to do more with the fact that I’m a woman in a leadership role than with the person of colour part, because I think that there is a tendency in our types of jobs to not expect direct and clear women. So I had a number of experiences where I would say something and my male counterpart would say the exact same thing and I would be told to watch my tone or not say so much because it gets “off-putting”. So I think I started to notice those things more where I had a platform to have a voice.
What really made me realize that it was something to keep notice of or to do something about, was when I was talking to a female fire crew member. We went up on a fire somewhere and we were driving home chatting about this kind of stuff because I was working on a panel for discrimination harassment against women within the fire service through The Association for Fire Ecology. She said she had never seen a woman in the type of role I was in and so she had never, after almost a decade of experience, considered that as a viable career path for her because she’d never seen herself reflected in those leadership positions. So from that point on, I really started working a lot more on these types of things because nothing’s going to change if that continues. Lately it just feels like there is growing impatience with the lack of real movement on this kind of stuff and now it’s turning into more frustration and I think I can see that growing in many places now. For a long time, I kind of felt like I was alone in the wilderness worried about this issue, but now there feels like there’s more momentum.
What are some stigmas or stereotypes that have affected your personal journey thus far?
There is the difference in perception of female leaders. I don’t actually think that any of the stereotypes of POC in my instance, have affected the journey. I think it’s far removed because there are so few of us that I don’t even know that people think about it that way, but in terms of women, I think it’s that idea that we’re tough to work with or we’re bossy. So we’re not allowed to be opinionated and when we are, it’s seen negatively. The other thing too is that people don’t expect me to be an Incident Commander or to run my program. I don’t think it helps that I don’t look like I’m very old so people don’t talk to me like they would my male or older counterparts. They often don’t realize I’m the Incident Commander unless I actually say so and I have to be aware of that. When I go to meetings, I intentionally increase my command presence by making sure I’m wearing my uniform and looking more official than I probably need to. Those are the kinds of things where I feel like I continually have to put on a bit of an act that I’m very official and I do command your respect, where I don’t feel like my male counterparts really need to do that. They could show up in jeans in a T-shirt and say I’m the fire chief of XYZ fire department and they would get that respect without any question. Whereas with me it’s a question of like, well you don’t look very old, how much experience could you have when you are a woman in information or logistics? They just don’t expect that I’m an Incident Commander.
Why do you think that your career in particular is a white/male dominated field?
The nature of the type of work we do and the culture is extremely militaristic and we have a very strong hierarchical structure. There’s an actual kind of hierarchical structure of how wildfires are run that is based on military principles, which tends to be generally male dominated and not very diverse kinds of workplace cultures. I think that it’s perpetuated by the fact that when you have very little diversity on top, then it’s hard to recruit and retain diverse people. You end up with lots of unconscious bias that makes it hard for POC and women to want to join. Until recently, work to address these issues hasn’t been a priority and I think we still have a lot of issues in many different agencies and within the fire community. For the Korean side of me, a lot of immigrant cultures don’t value dirty outside work. They want us to be doctors, lawyers, chemists, researchers, or something professional with a white collar. For me, growing up it was sometimes difficult. My parents are super supportive, they love me, and are proud of what I’ve done. However, I got comments like: “when are you gonna get a real job where you are not dirty all the time?” Over time they changed and became more supportive, but I think there is definitely a cultural barrier in terms of valuing the kind of work that we do.
Again, fire in particular is hard for women because we’re away all summer and can be away for 19 days at a time. For example, I was in Australia for 40 days. That’s not very conducive to family life. I’m 45 now and I’m not going to lie, I probably sacrificed having a family because of my job. When I wanted to get this job nine years ago, I would have been in my mid-thirties, right around the time when most people either have kids already or want to have kids. At the time, the thought of me taking a fire season off where I couldn’t gain more experience and stay afloat with my male counterparts, didn’t seem possible. I honestly think that if I had taken a break to be a parent at that point in my career, I would have missed out on getting the job based on the competition at the time. I felt like this was my one little chunk of time to get the job I really wanted, of which there are only three in the entire country. If I had taken that time off, where would I go? Would I come back? I know it’s not legal for them to penalize me for that, but when they’re looking for all the experience, you taking time off to be a parent just doesn’t seem realistic. I think that’s changing now with more diversity in management. They don’t often penalize you consciously or subconsciously for being a parent, but I think it still has definitely affected how many women stay in the fire career field because I still can’t make plans with my husband all summer. So that is very difficult when you have a young family, and when women still bear the bulk of child rearing responsibilities in many instances.
Are there any things that you’ve personally experienced that somebody who is not a woman or somebody who’s not a POC would not know about? Are there any experiences that some people may not want to hear about?
Probably yes to both. I think lately because I’ve been doing quite a bit on all those (diversity) working groups and stuff. I’ve just realized that I’m having to do this because I’m Korean and a woman. It’s not fair. I look at some of my other colleagues who are in a group that’s not underrepresented and they can focus 100% of their time, and their paid time, to do the job they were hired for. But when you asked me what my job was I told you what I was working in fire and vegetation, that’s what I’m hired to do, but I have had to carve out this whole other part of my time, energy, and emotion for this other thing that I actually wasn’t hired to do. How does society expect underrepresented groups to thrive if we’re doing 25% more work that’s not really recognized and doesn’t necessarily promote you to that next level? I just think how good could I be if I had 25% more time? How much more stuff could I get done? I could probably get so much more done. I could for sure just ignore this and not ever make a change and not participate, but that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. More and more, I just realized that underrepresented groups have to do more to get to the same place without the same support. I think that’s something I’ve had a bit of a not-so-great moment where I was just like: this isn’t fair. I can be part of one hundred working groups and we can chat about it at the employee level, but if the management executives don’t want to do something, then it’s not going to change.
People may not want to hear that I have experienced direct racism in my workplace from both colleagues and the public. For instance, I was interviewed by the media for some work I was doing in my local community for wildfire protection and while most of the comments online were positive, there was a very derogatory and racist comment posted on my appearance as an Asian person. Also, I have experienced racist comments from the public when on deployment for wildfire.
Has anything notable changed for people of colour or women that you’ve seen in terms of accessibility and inclusion over your career in parks?
I think there hasn’t been a time where we’ve had more, even though it’s still not very much, women, people of colour, and LGBTQ2S+ awareness in our fire program and in Parks Canada. When I first started working on this kind of stuff, I literally was the only person doing it and I had to tippy toe around getting approvals to work on it. Lately I think with Black Lives Matter, the awareness around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and all the things going on in the world; there’s more accountability. So in the last year I’ve seen tangible things where people are like, okay we’re going to do this and we’re going to make a change. So it’s not just a grassroots thing. It’s actually being driven a little bit top-down, but it definitely has changed whereas before I was kind of like swimming alone in the wilderness, now there’s more people doing the same things in other places.
How do you think Parks could encourage more diversity or make this a more safe and accessible place for people like yourself?
We need to empower those under-represented groups. We can’t just keep doing this off the side of our desk. If you really want it to change, put some people in a position where they can make that change. Where we don’t have to bring ideas to white/male/dominant people to make that change. I think you need to have diversity in that decision making space so that it actually happens and that you can be held accountable at the same level. We can suggest all sorts of things but in the end we are not at the same level. So I think making sure diversity is throughout the entire organization. The other thing I think is huge is unconscious bias during hiring and retention training. I think that’s probably the hardest thing because people don’t know that they’re doing it and they don’t realize the barriers it puts up, but it’s probably the single most important thing in terms of anybody applying for jobs or staying once we get them. Even if parks and protected areas are places for visitors, It’s all shaded by the demographic of who creates them.
Are there any things that Parks should not do when encouraging diversity?
I think sometimes there’s misguided attempts to make things more inclusive and by doing so it makes it kind of like you’re ‘othering’ people. When you’re catering so much to that demographic that you’re singling them out, which makes it even worse. There’s a fine balance between recognizing our cultural differences and singling out one group and being hyper attuned to their often false stereotypes. I feel sometimes like we target certain audiences and they don’t need to be targeted by race. It’s just maybe targeted in that activity or that user group or whatever. I think that making sure that the workforce is diverse and representative of who you want visiting is pretty important. The reason I never thought of working for Parks Canada is because I think I’d gone to a national park once in my life before I became a Park Warden. I never knew what a Park Warden was. Cowboy culture, which is kind of what the warden service is based on, that’s not really a thing for Korean people. And so when somebody mentioned the Warden Service, I didn’t even know what it was so I had to look it up. I remember a lot of my non-Korean or white friends being like: “how do you not know what a park warden is? How have you never considered National Parks when you’ve studied conservation?”. Well, we would go on giant picnics with the Korean church at the city park. That’s just what we did. I’d also go camping with my parents in a Provincial Park, as Riding Mountain National Park was too far away, we never drove that far. So I think that representation and exposure is important because I would have never actually joined the Warden Service, if my friend didn’t email me.
What advice would you give other women/POC who are interested in pursuing a career in parks and conservation?
To just go for it and reach out to people. There are more women, people of colour, and people in the LGBTQ+ community that are going places and are willing to mentor people or talk to you about their experiences. There’s a lot more out there. When I started, most people thought that I got the job because I was Korean. They thought it was a quota visible minority hire. It didn’t matter that I already finished grad school and undergrad and had 10 years of working experience. It was because I was Asian that I got in and people were very blunt and said that to my face. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. I think there are lots of more resources out there that show that it’s not as bad as it used to be. So I think there are mentoring opportunities, lots of different groups and initiatives that people can talk to if you’re worried about that part of the job. I think just like going for it and trying to make networks. Even on Facebook, I created this “Girls in Fire” group because I know women in fire. So I thought, wouldn’t it be neat if they all talked to each other? In a week, it was almost 300 people. It doesn’t take much to do and it makes people feel so much more connected and it’s like confidence by proxy. If you have all these women telling you that you’re awesome and you should do it, it’s going to be way easier to do it.
What are your next steps in your career and personal journey?
Career-wise, I really love where I am. As much as I’ve expressed my frustrations at times, I love my job. I love the people that I work with and I’m really close to the fire community within Parks Canada. Even outside of Parks Canada, it’s very close because we’re not that many people and we often spend 20 days at a time with each other. It’s kind of like being with your siblings. So I foresee myself staying where I am and doing the job I love for quite a while. I’m retiring in 12 years or something, so I don’t think I want to be a manager at all because I enjoy the work too much. I just like being in the field and being with people and doing fun stuff. I also hope that eventually I don’t have to spend an additional 25% of my time on solving diversity issues. I would like to aspire to getting to a point where 100% of my time is for fire and vegetation.