** Before reading on I just wanted to warn people that this post includes quotes from a number of very direct emails and messages that we have received over the past couple of years and in the past week in particular. Also included in this entry are images from previous postings of disturbing images and posters we found during our trek in the past two years. The sentiments in in the posters and ideas expressed in the emailed quotes we share in this post are troubling and reflect attitudes and beliefs which are NOT our own. We apologize for the attitudes iexpressed in these messages. **
On our trek across Canada and in our writings about this amazing adventure we have received overwhelming generosity and support since we set out in 2019. The simple fact is that I’m not sure that anyone could actually venture 24,000 km without the kindness and help of others – I certainly know that we could not have gotten as far as we have without the hard work of trail builders, assistance of trail angels and caring people from coast to coast to coast. Canada is a wondrous nation and Canadians are an amazing people.
Yet the sad reality is that we have also had our share of
critiques via emails, and social media messages from a lot of people who say that while they
support the spirit behind our hike, to get youth outdoors and connected
with nature, they nonetheless worry about us “lecturing” people to be active
and “forcing people to learn about Canada”.
In the past few months in particular we have been increasingly messaged by
people who are upset that we:
(1) talk too much about the environment.
(2) Who are frustrated that we keep reiterating a message about accessibility and diversity in the outdoors and who,
(3) are mad about our focus of things that we encounter – such as racism in Canada, the legacy of Residential Schools, and Black or Indigenous representation in Canadian history.
The recent publication of a series of blogs about our time in the Niagara Region on the Great Trail, which has an undeniable focus on Black Canadian History as well as Indigenous Representation and contributions in Canada has been met with a particularly vocal backlash and direct criticism. So much so that we have been told to stop blogging and quit our hike. Sadly I am no longer surprised by these reactions.
"Can't you just SHUT UP and hike?!?!"
Since setting out two years ago and sharing our trek
across Canada we have striven to show the nation’s beauty, its natural wonders
and its wildlife. However we have also
highlighted moments in our histories which are troubling, we have written about
shocking events that we have encountered and witnessed, and have talked about those areas where
we as a nation have fallen short. In moments when we felt compelled to act, compelled to speak, and compelled to point out what was going on - right here in Canada - then we did just that. Neither of us offers any apology for acting to stop racism and discrimination, or in striving to expand the diversity of peoples in the outdoors, in our parks or on our trails in Canada. Niether do we apologize for promoting accessibility to nature for all peoples.
We have never promised nor sought to idealize and romanticize Canada, instead we strive to reflect how we encounter the national experience in all of its complexities. If for no other reason than because we can all only do better if we are made aware of what is going on and not just shown pictures that make everyone happy and tell stories that reaffirm how we want to see the world. What the realities of one community are might not be the experiences of another – and so we learn about each other together. An awareness and appreciation for the experiences and realities of others leads to understanding, empathy, action, and progress.
Yet, increasingly, and from many quarters, the messages and emails have been clear. There is a rising belief that we are not walking to explore and share the nation and that we are not writing to show the country but that we are instead that being overly political and making nature political. According to the many many many emails and daily messages we now receive we are supposed to either “shut up and bird” or “just F****** hike and shut your holes”. For many “this isn’t the Canada I KNOW AND LOVE, show me THAT Canada and not all this crap!”
have been told to “stop being a libtard
and just show me pictures of my Canada” and to “keep your .... social justice crap to yourself and just hike”.
have been messaged that “my Canada
doesn’t have racism in it and I don’t follow U to hear UR whiny complainy
rants about sad Indians in our great Canadian schools!” as well as being emailed
“why do I have to change MY HISTORY which
is great …. so that the people who lost can feel better about themselves?", “I can’t get a campsite this year because of
all the foreigners in our parks so just keep your ideas to yourself and just
hike!” "Please can't you just shut up and hike?!?!"
Over all it seems, despite the variations in these comments, that the message has generally been the same - “birding and hiking aren’t political and you shouldn’t be either!”
Beyond being stunned by the range and ferocity
of the sentiments expressed I’m also not sure how to respond.
I don't think of myself as political
Part of me wants to assure everyone that when I go outside, onto a trail, or out to bird, that I am doing so to get away from everything. In fact I would more earnestly compare us to Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore than philosophers or political advocates on the trail. I entirely appreciate the concept that nature isn’t political because when I’m on the trail I am not thinking of the latest Supreme Court decisions, or by-election results, or the national budget. The fact is I get enough politics and opinion from the nightly news, and social media. I don’t go outside seeking politics and political opinions out. Like most people, when I’m in nature I go out to get away from my desk to just enjoy the outdoors.
I entirely sympathize that at a time where everything seems to be
divisive, or a source of critique, and a platform for opinion that so many people want to go into nature to find peace and quiet on a hike,
or escape through birding.
Like us, people go out into nature to escape political debates not to engage in them. People on trails want to venture into the outdoors without meanings being interpreted into their walk, agendas being ascribed to their trek, or having to have a position on the latest political drama. All of which I entirely sympathize with because – much of the time – a walk is just a walk, birding is just birding, and “a dog fight near a cheese farm is merely a dog fight near a cheese farm”.
Nature is already political
However, I also think that to believe that nature and birding are apolitical ignores a number of realities and our own interests – because whether you love it or hate it, agree or disagree the fact is that nature is already political.
The reality is that there is almost no land that isn’t managed, isn’t owned, isn’t the site of industry, agriculture, business, or government, or which isn’t already a city park, provincial park, national park, or neighbourhood. What this means is that whether you rent or own property, if you have ever gone outside, gone to a city park, camped at a provincial or national park then nature is political. Where parks and trails are built, who builds them, who maintains them and who funds them are all political matters. If you walk on city trails, enjoy local baseball and soccer fields, use local basketball courts and skateboard parks, have a community centre and public space in your neighborhood then nature is political.
If you like to camp with amenities, you enjoy exploring crown land, go fishing, boating or hunting, or enjoy stopping at the public pier, resting on beaches or sitting at picnic benches then nature is political.
In addition to which if you like birding, enjoying being able to access wetlands to bird and support bird conservation then nature is political. If you like hiking, if you enjoy the outdoors, like having clean water, clean air, want to protect wildlife, if you enjoy national parks and want to ensure that provincial parks are not privatized, want to ensure that our pathways and parks are safe, and agree that the outdoors are the heritage of every person then you too believe that nature is political.
If you agree that stores, schools, trailways, and the outdoors should be accessible to everyone regardless of their race, culture, heritage, orientation, physical abilities, or economic circumstances then nature is political. If you believe that people have the fundamental right to feel safe and welcome in their own neighbourhoods, in their own backyards, in their own communities and in the greens spaces they visit then nature is political.
If you abide by Covid restrictions, practice social distancing, wear a mask, have gone through quarantine and isolation, and recreation responsibly - then nature is political.
If you support, amazing groups such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited, Island Nature Trust, the Sierra Club, or are a member of a local hiking organization, regional naturalist clubs, a Hunt Club, or Rod and Reel Club - all of whom do important work to protect and preserve our natural world - then nature is political.
Simply put, it’s not that our hike or blog has made nature political, the fact is that nature is already political.
None of these are outlandish comments, instead they are simply the realities of the outdoors, hiking and birding in Canada. But the problem isn’t that nature is political; the problem is the type of politics that we bring to nature. The real issue is the fact that the political discourse of the moment favours brash critique, opinionated rants, and polarizing pronouncements and that we live in a society that prefers drama, presumptions, and outrage rather than cooperation. It’s not that nature is political, it’s the political environment that we have brought to debates about nature – which is a shame because we are all in this together and we all have the same vested interest in the well being of our nation and its environment.
Finding Common Ground
In the coming year we will be continuing our trek across
Canada on the Great Trail, and we will continue to promote inclusion and
diversity in the outdoors and show youth how they can reconnect to nature
through citizen science. Just as we will
continue to show Canada as we experience it – the good, the bad, and the
complex, because we want people to explore and talk about the country and in the process and
expand how they see the nation. This
trek should make you be amazed by Canada’s natural beauty, it should push you
to wonder about our history, talk about our achievements, and about the wonders
it holds from coast to coast to coast.
However it will also present those matters which challenge us today, and
in the process make us confront those uncomfortable realities that so many
face, right here in Canada in the 21st century. In the places we excell we should be proud as a nation and in the areas that we can do better we should strive to do so.
Much of what we have sought to do on our hike, in our blog
and in our presentation is get people to re-conceive
nature as being found not just in our province and national parks or in
pristine wilderness but as also being in our communities and backyards. We promote this idea because if we let ourselves think of nature as only being found
in remote parks or as only being enjoyable on short vacations then we miss out
on the fact that there is a great deal of beauty and huge range of birding
opportunities near to our homes and in our own backyards. This is important,
not just for our own enjoyment of nature, but because if we see nature as being
nearby then it means that we also have an opportunity to help and protect the
environment while beautifying our own neighbourhoods. It also reflects the belief that local effort and small actions
can lead to big changes and since nature is in everyone’s backyard it is the
perfect place to begin.
Whether you live on the East Coast, in la Belle Province,
Ontario, the Prairies, on the Pacific shore or in the Northern Territories – nature is our common ground – we are
all near to it, we all enjoy it, and we can all help it. This should be how we
see the politics of nature and the outdoors – not as a source of division but
as our common ground. Once we acknowledge that we all share this common ground then we can move forward stronger together.