Selling sirmilik, branding Banff

With declining visits and a poor image, Parks Canada starts a marketing push.

(Photo: Bert Hoferichter/Alamy/Getstock)

When asked the top symbols of their country’s identity, Canadians ranked national parks higher than hockey, according to a survey done in 2010 by Environics Research Group. But if you are like the majority of urban Canadians, you can’t name a single one. Parks Canada is facing a crisis similar to many companies with a long-standing product: how to stay relevant. The organization celebrated its 100th birthday last month and, as it becomes less significant to city dwellers each year, is trying to rebrand itself as accessible and exciting, while preserving roughly $600 million in annual government funding.

Eight out of 10 Canadians live in urban centres and non-rural areas, and a growing number have never visited a national park. Parks Canada noticed the problem in 2002, after conducting a national survey where staff asked Canadians questions about the organization, including whether they could name a park. Only 24% of Torontonians, 28% of Montrealers, and 32% of Vancouverites passed. That same year, park visitors dropped to 22 from 24 million, and the number has stayed the same. It was a wake-up call for the staff. “We used to assume people would trip over us, or know about us already,” says Andrew Campbell, Parks Canada vice-president of visitor experience. “Now we know we have to get out there and be like everybody else and have [things like] good media relations.”

In 2005, the organization created a new position called “agency renewal” and held meetings with media, the tourism industry and businesses like Mountain Equipment Co-op to figure out what prevents people from visiting parks. The next year they sent out a national survey that showed Canadians found the wilderness intimidating: parks seemed a long way away, and they didn’t have adequate bush skills. So in their centennial year, Parks Canada has turned to education and rebranding.

The challenge is to make nature exciting, while still preserving its pristine qualities for those who enjoy the core product. Many of Park Canada’s new initiatives, which include a reality show called Operation Unplugged, which will feature eight Canadians stripped of electronics surviving in the wilderness, and adding a bike trail alongside a herd of bison in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands Park, have purists scoffing. Campbell says criticism comes mostly from small environmental groups, his favourite quote being someone comparing the efforts to “putting a waterslide in the Vatican.”

“Not everyone is looking for a 14-day canoe trip or 10-day hike in the back country,” says Campbell. Parks Canada is also trying to connect with new Canadians who often aren’t used to nature. It teamed up with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to hold ceremonies in parks as opposed to court rooms, and has made an effort to accommodate different cultures, such as picnic tables that fit big families and barbecue pits for roasting meat. Will all this be enough to entice urbanites to stare at trees rather than screens for a weekend? Marc Chikinda, the dean of communication studies at Mount Royal University, says ultimately the strength of the product will be enough. “Parks Canada doesn’t have lemons,” he says. “They have the most stunning, remarkable repository of nature anywhere in the world.”