The Canmore-Provincial Parks Conundrum

The province of Alberta is looking to changing how provincial parks are regulated. Nowhere will these changes have a greater affect than Canmore. CPAWS, the Sierra Club, and other conservation interest groups have taken up lamenting how these changes will transform Canmore without necessarily recognizing how much Canmore has already been transformed by its location in the middle of a swath of preserved lands. Before we go bemoaning the further deterioration of the pristine wilderness surrounding the town and protected by the regulations of provincial and national parks, we need to take a step back and think about how the Canmore we know today developed.

Three Sisters

On Friday, July 13, 1979, the coal mines that had sustained the town since 1883 closed. This date is known as “Black Friday” and it is part of the beginning of Canmore’s transformation. Until the late 1970s, Canmore was defined by its sole industry – coal mining – not by the mountain landscape it is situated in. Canmore was Banff’s working class cousin, savy travelers knew they could stay at a hotel in Canmore for much less than anything available in Banff but the destination was still Banff. Canmore was a dirty coal mining town, Banff was the jewel of the Rockies. Then demand for coal began to drop off, specifically the main postwar market for Canmore’s coal, Japan, moved to other fuels. That is when the layoffs started and the question arose: what becomes of Canmore when the mining stops? Families who had called the little town in the shadow of the Three Sisters home for generations moved to the mining communities in the Crowsnest Pass and around Nordegg. Others choose to tough it out. The community was at a crossroads and it needed help to avoid the fate of Georgetown, Anthracite and Bankhead – all ghost towns.
What gave Canmore a second chance was the recognition by the provincial government there was a chance to get a bigger piece of the mountain tourism pie which Banff and Jasper held a monopoly on. Between 1977 and 2000 the lands around Canmore that were obstentiously part of the Kananaskis Country Improvement District were turned into the various provincial parks which now make up Kananaskis Country, including; Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (1977), Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park (1988), and Spray Lakes Provincial Park (2000). The preservation of these lands for recreation – and some timber extraction – was the first part of transforming Canmore from a coal mining town into a resort community. Kananaskis Country was envisioned as an alternative to Banff National Park wherein Canmore would be the service centre and the there would be few restrictions placed on the types of recreation activities allowed. By the time Canmore was thrust into the global spotlight as host of the nordic events for the 1988 Calgary Olympics it was primed to enter the development boom that has continues today due in not small part to the preserved lands which had encircled it.
Canmore no longer resembles the coal mining community it was in the 1970s. Any one who has lived in Canmore from the late 1980s through to the present can attest to the dramatic change in the land and in the community the past two decade have wrought. The community has been replaced with weekenders and the high end boutique stores the want to shop at, and the redevelopment of Mineside has left a scare on the Grassi massive to match the limestone quarry on Grotto Mountain. It avoided becoming a ghost town and instead become what the provincial planners of the 1970s and 1980s wanted it to be; a resort community to rival Banff. It is now a place where wealthy urbanites from around the world can have what the national park denies them – ownership of a piece of Rockies.
Canmore’s second chance at life is explicitly tied to the provincial parks and wilderness spaces which surround it and changes to the administration of those spaces would put the continued growth of the town in jeopardy. Tourist and weekenders do not want to visit a place where logging and mining activities are evident. They did not want to spend time in Canmore when coal was its life blood and they will not visit Canmore if the province changes parks legislation to turn a successful resort community into a resort-resource extraction hybrid community.
Canmore from the top of Ha Ling

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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2 Responses to The Canmore-Provincial Parks Conundrum

  1. jeffslack says:

    Great post Lauren. We’re experiencing similar debates here in Whistler surrounding logging. When plans were made to harvest one of the few remaining stands of old-growth forests in the valley, more of the opposition was based on aesthetic grounds, rather than ecological. “Logging has no place in a tourism-oriented valley” was the common argument. This of course ignores the fact that logging has never ceased in this region, and logging remains a major part of Squamish’s and Pemberton’s economies even as they undergo a similar transition to a hybrid tourism-resource economy that you describe for Canmore.
    I think this balancing act between tourism- and resource-based land-use strategies is going to become increasingly delicate and contentious as the commodities slump continues and there is a push to expand tourism in western Canada. This is a worthy topic of study for environmental historians who don’t often study the two sectors together.

  2. Great point about logging and the mountains around Whistler, Jeff. I agree, acknowledging that resource extraction has and continues to take place in regions promoted as wilderness is paramount. This applies to environmental historians and to the general public – resident and tourist – because only with such a recognition can the debates move onto finding a common ground rather than demonizing side and further romanticizing the other.

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