How the History of Segregation Impacts Recreation

Colorized photo of the pool at Cave and Basin in the 1920s. Parks Canada. Photo courtesy of Niche Canada.

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, and connection to nature to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada. 

Today I want to talk about stereotypes. I am sure we have all heard of them, or maybe have even believed one at some point in our lives. Stereotypes are a constant thing in society, but perhaps there is something more insidious hiding beneath the surface. Growing up, I had very few chances to visit a national park unless it was during my family summer tradition to experience the Rockies once a year. Of course, we would go to the small municipal parks around my neighbourhood, whether for birthday celebrations or to feed ducks, but overall partaking in the typical forms of recreation that I think of when talking about the “great outdoors” were few and far between. So in those rare opportunities to go camping or take a hike, I noticed something I found strange at a young age: my brothers and I were usually the only non-white, or even, the only Black people on the trails. When I would ask why this was to my white family members, I never got any significant answers. Maybe there were more people of colour visiting on the days that I was not there? Maybe hiking in the mountains just was not their thing? After receiving answers like this, I just stopped asking these questions and moved on. However, the stereotypes did not end at hiking or going to national parks. By the time I was in university, I had heard it all. Stereotypes like “Black people can’t swim”, “people of colour do not play hockey”, “people of colour don’t like the wilderness” and so on, are just some to name a few. 

Thinking of these stereotypes at first, they might seem relatively harmless or even played off as a joke at times, but this hides the fact that they might have real implications. The first time I went camping in a remote area with a few of my friends who are also POCs, I noticed that we were treated differently than how I am treated when I go camping with my white family members. One morning, we talked with an older couple while collecting firewood, and they told us that they had never seen people like us camping before in the area. So they were pleasantly surprised to meet us there and thought others in the area would be just as equally shocked as they were. I don’t blame the couple for their reaction in any way. Like myself, many of my POC friends have also joked about how the great outdoors is not really “our thing” and have struggled to convince others in our communities to do more than just shop in national parks. Yet, letting this stereotype go and not thinking about it on a deeper level does not feel right. The fact remains that I still rarely see people who look like me participating in or being represented in nature recreation, let alone working in parks. So, where do these stereotypes come from

The Roots in Oppression

Nature and recreation are wonderful things. It often shapes who we are as human beings and should be for everyone, so why would a stereotype or a narrative like this exist? Well, as I have learnt through time, there is always a historical explanation. Anti-Black racism and other forms of racial discrimination towards ethnic minorities in recreation have been growing in discussion over the last few years in the United States. For example, the common stereotype that “Black people can’t swim” is linked to segregation and the sometimes violent exclusion of Black people from pools and beaches.[1] However, just like the U.S., Canada also supported segregation against Black, Asian, and Indigenous peoples at places like beaches, hockey rinks, swimming pools, and theatres.[2] Yet, the issue of racism and segregation plays a central role in the history of parks too. According to historians, there have been plenty of instances where Canadian parks would bar people of colour from enjoying recreational facilities,[3] refer to Jewish people and other POCs as “restricted clientele”,[4] or even remove a Black church wanting to enjoy a picnic in nature from park premises entirely.[5] Even worse, one of the most important and internationally revered figures for championing civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., was also turned away from spending a holiday with his wife and their friends at Fundy National Park in 1960.[6] When MLK looked to Canada as a more welcoming country to take a short respite in, our parks turned him away and lost the chance to host one of the greatest icons of the 20th century

Letter to L. Harold DeWolf, Friend Martin Luther King Jr., declining MLK’s entry into Fundy National Park
Letter to L. Harold DeWolf, Friend Martin Luther King Jr., declining MLK’s entry into Fundy National Park. Photo Courtesy of Canadiana Heritage.

Today, despite all these horrific occurrences in our history, some might wonder why Black people and other POCs do not just go out and take advantage of these recreational activities or enjoy parks now that segregation has long been over. Although I understand where questions like this are coming from to an extent, the issue of this lack of representation or participation is far more difficult than it seems. According to research, there is a generational effect from segregation, even when it comes to recreation or enjoying parks.[7] So, think of it this way — if you grew up during segregation and were not allowed to enjoy nature recreation and access to parks was non-existent in your community, you would not participate in those activities and would find other things to do that were available to you. From there on, you would likely pass on the activities you did enjoy to your children and that cycle of exclusion would continue throughout the next couple of generations. Importantly, even after laws were put in place to make segregation illegal, it technically has continued for years after, as many racialized communities still have less access to parks, are often subject to overt and casual racism within outdoor spaces, and have had to adjust to the generational trauma left behind or the general distrust towards recreational activities that have been traditionally barred to them for so long. 

Another systemic barrier of what makes outdoor spaces inaccessible to BIPOC communities is within the very nature of white-washing the history of parks. The National Health Foundation notes that “in history books and even in the naming of outdoor spaces, there has been a deliberate and intentional erasure of Indigenous history and ownership of outdoor lands”.[8] This rhetoric has often led to the conceptualization that park spaces are reserved for and owned by European/Christian communities to preserve what we consider as “wilderness” in western society. At this time, we have yet to acknowledge that this thinking, which is still embedded in many environmental movements, was executed at the expense of Indigenous and other POC communities. All of this, combined with a general lack of BIPOC representation in media or at decision making tables, continues to feed these harmful stereotypes and perpetuates the exclusion of many BIPOC communities to this day. 

What Can Parks Do to Address Racism in Outdoor Spaces?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Given this idea that BIPOC individuals do not enjoy outdoor recreation, it is especially important to note that many communities of colour do engage in plenty of outdoor activities. For example, activities like barbecues or picnics in city parks are something that many communities of colour participate in and are represented in. However, while outdoor recreation in municipal parks is used where it is accessible, the experience from visiting a national park and being surrounded by nature holds immeasurable value for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health and should be accessible for anyone, regardless of race or economic background. So, while many may say that “the outdoors do not discriminate” or that “parks are for everyone”, it is apparent that this sentiment does not apply to everyone at this time, no matter how well-intentioned this belief is. Currently, our parks and outdoor recreational systems are built upon the same underlying structures of oppression that have historically governed our society. Knowing this fact means that parks agencies also have a moral responsibility to help dismantle these systems and to encourage true diversity throughout every aspect of parks. Now is the time to push for policies and practices that prioritize racial justice or inclusion and spreads awareness of the many subtle barriers, like stereotypes, that have historical ties to systems of discrimination.

So if you are reading this, I hope next time you hear some strange stereotypes that you will also want to dig a little deeper to figure out where they come from. I know for me as a park leader and as a Biracial Black Woman, I want to make sure that others who look like me or who can relate to my story know that being in nature has always been “our thing”.

Citations

  1. Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 38, no. 4 (August 2014): 366–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723513520553.
  2. Cheryl Thompson. “Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land.” Canadian Journal of History 52, no. 1 (April 1, 2017).
  3.  Loo, Meg Stanley and Tina. “Getting into Hot WATER: Racism and Exclusion at Banff National Park,”.https://niche-canada.org/2020/08/26/getting-into-hot-water-racism-and-exclusion-at-banff-national-park/
  4. MacEachern, Alan. “Restricted Clientele! Everyday Racism in Canadian National Parks.” https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/ 
  5. “Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racial-segregation-of-black-people-in-canada#:~:text=In%20the%20early%201840s%2C%20when,particularly%20where%20there%20were%20high
  6. MacEachern, Alan https://niche-canada.org/2020/09/09/race-revisited-in-canadian-national-parks/  
  7. Wiltse, Jeff. “The Black–White Swimming Disparity in America: A Deadly Legacy of Swimming Pool Discrimination.”
  8. “Breaking Down the Lack of Diversity in Outdoor Spaces.” National Health Foundation, July 20, 2020. https://nationalhealthfoundation.org/breaking-down-lack-diversity-outdoor-spaces/.

Case Spotlight: The Right to Dismantle Encampments in Parks and Public Spaces

by Stanley Omotor

Stanley Omotor 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.

In a number of judicial cases, now known as “encampment cases”, courts in British Columbia (BC) have prohibited government authorities and park agencies from dismantling encampments set up in parks by persons experiencing homelessness, in the absence of shelter alternatives. However, in a recent decision in Ontario, the Superior Court of Justice refused an application that would have restrained the City of Hamilton from dismantling similar encampments set up in Hamilton’s parks. Following the Ontario’s court decision, the City of Hamilton was swift in moving to enforce its bylaw prohibiting encampments in the city’s parks.

These decisions and their outcome should matter to park leaders, park agencies, and all members of the public, especially persons who make use of the services of parks and public spaces 

There is little difference between leisure camping and necessity camping (the latter of which this blog post associates with encampments set up by persons experiencing homelessness). Imagine tents in a forest, people socializing, getting through their day, then sleeping in the forest. This is what happens in both leisure and necessity camping, but unlike the former which involve a voluntary choice to sleep in the forest, the latter is made to sleep out because of the necessity of it, as there is nowhere else to call home. However, as park officials are quick to argue in encampment cases, necessity camping restricts other members of the public from accessing park services. In pointing out that government and park agencies need to do more than simply dismantling encampments in parks and public places, this blog post points out some differences in the above two judicial decisions which deal with the power of the park agencies to dismantle encampments. Although the judicial decisions were based on municipal parks, it is not unlikely that similar principles will apply to provincial and national parks.

BC courts have consistently held that persons experiencing homelessness be allowed to remain at encampments set up in parks, public spaces, vacant lands, or city’s properties, in the absence of suitable alternative housing and daytime facilities. In a recent 2021 case (Prince George (City) v. Stewart), the City of Prince George in seeking a court order that would allow the city to remove structures set up in parks by persons experiencing homelessness, the City had argued, amongst others, that the encampments caused harm to residents and businesses in surrounding neighbourhood, led to increase in criminal activities and drug use, and deprived members of the public of walking at or near the encampments due to garbage, smell and safety concerns. In partly refusing the City’s application, the BC Supreme Court considered the evidence presented by the city in support of the above allegations as hearsay and inadmissible evidence. Also, the court found that there was insufficient alternate housing for the persons experiencing homelessness to enable the court grant the city’s application. 

The opposite conclusion was reached by the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario in the case of Poff v. City of Hamilton (2021)which was decided less than two weeks after the decision in the above Stewart’s case. In Poff’s case, the applicants who resided at different encampments in Hamilton parks, sought a court order to restrain the city from enacting and enforcing a bylaw that prohibited camping and the erection of structures in the city’s parks. In this case, the court accepted the evidence presented by city staff based on documented evidence, personal observation and other sources as credible and reliable evidence linking criminal activities, violence, drug use, health concerns, nuisance and indecency associated with some of the encampments in the parks, thereby preventing city residents from using the parks. Despite noting that Hamilton, like other parts of Canada, is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, the court held that the city has taken reasonable steps to provide alternative safe shelter and accommodation to persons experiencing homelessness, but the applicants rejected these alternatives for personal reasons and preference, and that this does not “give rise to aright to live in encampments in (the City’s park)”. Consequently, in refusing to restrain the City from enforcing the bylaw in question, the court noted the right of other members of the public to make use of parks and concluded that the bylaw was a valid exercise of the City’s power.

Although the decision from Ontario is only an interim decision (being an interlocutory injunction application) at the moment, it provides government at all levels (from federal to municipal) with more options to enable sustainable, healthy and inclusive parks and public spaces. Notably, in arriving at its decision, the Superior Court in Ontario referred to, but distinguished, the preceding encampment cases in BC, including the recent Stewart’s case. This may therefore be an emerging judicial trend. To prevent the erection of tents, structures and shelter in public spaces, government and park agencies need to do more than rely on hearsay evidence on the impacts of these encampments in parks and public places. There are usually no concerns when other leisure-seeking members of society camp in parks and public spaces, but concerns are raised when persons experiencing homelessness seek similar opportunities. Persons experiencing homelessness are often deprived of these opportunities. The court in Poff’s case rightly noted the affordable housing crisis being experienced by many Canadian cities. For instance, the Vancouver Homeless Count 2019 shows the increasing number of persons experiencing homelessness in Metro Vancouver, compared to previous years. As of 2019, a total number of 2,223 individuals were counted as experiencing homelessness in Vancouver, the highest number since 2015 when the count began. Increasing cost of affordable housing with less comparative increase in income may mean that many individuals and families are just one life-changing and unforeseen event away from becoming homeless. Encampment cases and the plight of persons experiencing homelessness, therefore, need to be of concern to all park leaders. Persons experiencing homelessness are as human as other members of the society not experiencing homelessness – the former only does camping out of necessity and for a longer-term than the latter. Encampments in parks and public places is one of the unintended consequences of the high cost of affordable housing in many Canadian cities, hence the need to take an approach that considers both crisis – housing and encampment crisis. In one of the encampment cases (Abbotsford v. Shantz (2015)), the court had therefore recommended designating certain public parks for use by persons experiencing homelessness Also, a previous study had linked how restricting access and use of public facilities may result in human rights concern in land use planning.

Finally, as rightly noted by the court in Poff’s case, cities may need to show sufficient alternate housing options if persons experiencing homelessness are to be prevented from camping in parks. If sufficient alternate housing is in place, courts will be more willing to uphold relevant bylaws allowing the city to prevent and dismantle encampments in parks and public spaces.

Parks, Representation and Black History Leadership Primer – A Participant Review

by Nathaniel Rose

Nathaniel Rose 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.

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in the online Leadership Primer, “Parks, Representation and Black History” created by Jaqueline L. Scott. The goal of this unique online course is to explore equity and diversity in Canadian Parks and find ways to make Black Canadians feel more welcome in natural places. You can find the course on the website for the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership (instructions are at the bottom of this article) and it is free!

As a Knowledge Gatherer for CPCIL, rather than a Parks Leader, I did not have a specific park or protected area that I was connecting to through the Primer, but I still was able to connect with the teachings the Primer had to offer.

            The Primer was mainly focused on Black Representation in Canadian Parks, and through a series of exercises, got me to think about how to make parks a more welcoming experience for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. The Primer also included a series of case studies outlining Black history in areas that you might not have known Black people played a role in. By the end of the primer I felt I was definitely in the process of questioning Black people’s representation in natural spaces, and the images and contexts used to promote them.

Here’s a bit of what I learned:

People of colour make up about 25% of Canada’s population, and in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, make up the majority of residents, but they don’t often travel to and spend time in natural areas (1). This is because there are barriers they come across, in the way parks are promoted and represented. Many of them are actually frustrated, as they feel the outdoor sector doesn’t include them (1).

            People interact with parks in a variety of ways: names of trails, social media, brochures, newsletters, maps and historical and informative plaques. But many times these ways of interacting become “white spaces” as Black people and people of colour are not shown in the images used, the history shown, or the names given to these places.

            For example: when you think about a park brochure, sometimes only white people are shown in the photos used, or if Black people are shown, they may not be doing the same thing that there white counterparts are. One of the exercises in the Primer asks you to question:

1) Whether Black people are the main subject of the photo, or if they remain in the background

2) Whether they are alone, pictured as a couple, or in a group

3) If it’s a couple or a group, are all the people Black?

4) What are the Black People doing in the photo?  

                  -Scott

These questions help you to think and reflect on the way Black people are portrayed. Interestingly enough, people are less likely to try an activity if they don’t see people of their race or culture participating in that activity. So a lot of how you promote a place does a lot to determine who feels eager and welcome to go to it.

Image by Keira Burton

The end of each exercise in the primer, asks you to question what opportunities you can think of for changing the landscape of black representation in your park. For example, one question is: “ What opportunities are there to add new plaques in your park to reflect the multicultural history of the park or areas around it?” (Scott). Another question was: “Who could you reach out to find these stories?” (Scott). I found that this second question was a really helpful step, in getting you to actually start making change in your park.

 

The second section of the Primer focused on different case studies of Black people in history. Notably many of the examples were new to me, and not something I had been taught in school. Scott smartly notes that “Appealing to Black history is a way to get Black people to visit National and Provincial Parks”. It locates Black people in the space in the past, so they feel they can visit in the present. It sends the message that if they were there in the past, why not come now? Including Black history in plaques or park brochures would then be a good step in ensuring the Black population feels welcome in that space.

One interesting fact I learned was that Black people were involved in the Fur Trade. I learned this through a case study of George Bonga, who held a trading post at Leech Lake, which is now in Minnesota, and was an important cultural delegate between the Ojibwe and Europeans (2). He signed two treaties between them, one in 1820 and one in 1867 (2). Another fact that I learned was that Black people had a lot to do with the Ranching Industry and the Calgary Stampede in Western Canada (1).  I found it particularly interesting that a cowboy, named John Ware, was said to be gentle with horses, almost a “horse whisperer” (3). When I learned this, I remember thinking: “Huh, this is the first time I had thought of Black people being sensitive with animals”. Not that I didn’t think that was possible, but I had never learned about a specific person who was Black and who also worked closely and intuitively with animals.  This changed my perspective on the breadth of humans interacting with the animal kingdom.

Image by Peter Starcevic

 The Primer ended with a great question: Why are we not taught about these notable Black people in the school system?. In a video interview about John Ware, author and playwright Cheryl Fogo notes that she is hopeful and optimistic that we (Albertans) are getting there (3). Fogo notes that she has been involved in talks about updating Alberta’s school curriculum (this was back in 2017). I wonder what progress we have made so far…

I definitely recommend taking this Leadership Primer on Black Representation in Parks. I learned a lot about Black history and grew a lot in terms of my own awareness of how to transform parks to make them more welcoming to Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. I also found I could apply this knowledge to other areas of my work – including my work in the theatre sector. 

You can find the Primer at https://cpcil.ca/leadership-primers/ or by going to the CPCIL Home Page and selecting “Leadership Programs” in the top menu banner and then selecting “Leadership Primers”. This Primer is called “Parks, Representation and Black History” and was created by Jaqueline L. Scott. There are a handful of other Leadership Primers to take there as well.

Works Cited

1) Scott, Jaqueline L. “Parks, Representation and Black History.” Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership., www.cpcil.ca/courses/2021-representation/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021.

2) TPT Originals. “Voyageur. Entrepreneu. Diplomat. Meet MN Black Pioneer George Bonga.” Youtube, 18 February, 2019. www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUTzqxZH2D0. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

3) Breakfast Television. “Black History Month: The Story of John Ware.” Youtube, 15 February, 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DaeyxtgkSM. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.

Photos Sourced from: pexels.com  

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.

Inclusion and Equity Leader Profile: Sarah Boyle

Sarah Boyle (she/her) is a project manager for the Protected Areas Establishment Branch of Parks Canada, which deals with establishing terrestrial and marine conservation areas. Boyle is currently working on the proposed national park reserve in the South Okanagan – Similkameen region of British Columbia, the unceded traditional territory of the Syilx Nation. She has been working in this position for the past two and a half years.

I reached Sarah at her home in Revelstoke, British Columbia to talk about her experience living and working in parks.

Continue reading

Inclusion and Equity Leader Profile: Rike Moon

Rike Moon (she/her) works for BC Parks as the Community Engagement Specialist on the Community Engagement and Education section at Provincial Services Branch in Victoria, BC. She has been in this role since May 2020. Rike is a native of Germany and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community. She spoke to me about her experience in parks and protected areas from her home in Victoria, BC.

Continue reading

Inclusion and Equity Leader Profile: Marilynn Hay

Marilynn Hay (she/her) is a municipal advisor with the Province of Nova Scotia and has been in this role since November 2019. She initially took a leave of absence from her role as a Municipal Advisor with the Kananaskis Improvement District (KID), Alberta Environment and Parks but has since left that position. With the KID, Marilynn was employed as a Municipal Advisor and spent a year acting in a dual role of Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Manager of Emergency Services within the Kananaskis Region. She identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community. I reached Marilynn at her home office in Halifax, Nova Scotia to discuss her experience as an LGBTQ2S+ woman working in conservation.

Continue reading

Inclusion and Equity Leader Profile: Daniella Rubeling

Daniella Rubeling (she/her) is the visitor experience manager for the Parks Canada Banff Field Unit. In this role, Rubeling oversees visitor experience across most of Banff National Park. She started in this role eight months ago, one day prior to the transition to working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Daniella has recently returned to her office in the Banff townsite, which is where I reached her.

Continue reading