National Parks of Canada

Canada's national parks are protected areas established under federal legislation to preserve Canada's natural heritage. Canadians live in a land rich in natural beauty, from great northern landscapes and huge swaths of boreal forest, to temperate rainforests and prairie grasslands.

Lake O
Lake O'Hara, banked between glacier-carved valleys in Yoho National Park, BC (courtesy Environment Canada).
Prince Albert National Park
Waskesiu Lake, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan (photo by Bill Brooks/Masterfile).
Hot Springs Pool
Banff, Alberta, in the late 1880s (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-25059).
Banff National Park Mountains
Banff's blend of towering peaks and flower-strewn meadows makes it among Canada's most exhilarating holiday areas (Corel Professional Photos).
Grasslands National Park
Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (photo by Greg Stott/Masterfile).

Canada's national parks are protected areas established under federal legislation to preserve Canada's natural heritage. Canadians live in a land rich in natural beauty, from great northern landscapes and huge swaths of boreal forest, to temperate rainforests and prairie grasslands. Bringing life and inspiration to these lands are herds of bison and caribou, grizzly bears and wolves, polar bears and many other species. In 1998, Parliament passed legislation that made Parks Canada a separate agency for the purpose of administering Canada's parks system. There are now more than 40 national parks and national park reserves in Canada.

Protected and Preserved

The goal of Canada's national parks system, in addition to their role in representing and protecting examples of the country's geographic heritage, is to encourage public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of our natural heritage so as to leave it unimpaired for future generations. This system of national parks is an essential element in strategies for conserving the nation's biodiversity. Among the diverse examples of these national icons are the majestic mountains of Banff National Park, the prairies of Grasslands National Park and the Arctic tundra of Ivvavik National Park. Visitor and educational opportunities in the national parks include hands-on visitor experiences, educational programs in schools and homes, and research programs. In addition, national parks have important economic benefits to local communities and the tourism industry in Canada.

For millennia Canada's landscape was primarily shaped by natural forces. Now, however, agricultural and industrial activities are altering the environment at an accelerated pace. The creation and management of national parks help to stem these human-caused changes, protecting natural environments. Aside from the opportunity to protect and maintain landscapes and wildlife, each park provides us with the potential to restore degraded ecosystems to allow them to persist into the future in a healthy state.

Opportunities are provided for recreational activities compatible with long-term protection of park resources. Simultaneous preservation of park environments in a natural state and encouragement of safe public use of the parks requires the maintenance of a delicate balance. Preserving this balance is a major task for staff, who must study and document park resources, and then apply this knowledge so that human impact on park ecosystems is minimized, and visitors' experiences leave them inspired and informed.


The Canadian national parks system began in November 1885, when an area of approximately 26 km2 on the northern slope of Sulphur Mountain was set aside for public use. This area, the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, was the beginning of what is now Banff National Park. The hot springs were discovered in 1883 by three railway employees working on the construction of the first transcontinental railway through the Rocky Mountains. Rather than grant private title to the lands to individuals or companies, the government decided the hot springs should be preserved for the benefit of all Canadians, an act similar to the creation of the Arkansas Hot Springs in 1832, the first federal reserve in the United States.

In 1886, a Dominion land surveyor was hired to undertake a legal survey of the Hot Springs Reserve. This work resulted in a report by the commissioner of Dominion Lands saying that "a large tract of country lying outside of the original reservation presented features of the greatest beauty, and was admirably adapted for a national park." A bill to establish the first national park in Canada was introduced in the House of Commons in April 1887. The Rocky Mountains Park Act, establishing what is now called Banff National Park, was passed on 23 June 1887. Renowned for its mountains and hot springs, Banff is viewed on a continental scale as one of the core protected areas in the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor where collaborative efforts are focused on trying to ensure that grizzly bears and wolves can continue to migrate through large-scale ecosystems.

Growth and Organization

Banff became a symbol of a new respect for the land. Interest in the development of other reserves ran high among members of Parliament and Canadian Pacific Railway officials and, in the years before 1895, three new mountain reserves were set aside, unavailable for "sale, settlement or squatting." These later became Yoho, Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks. The availability of large tracts of undeveloped public lands in western Canada, coupled with the government's interest in bringing tourists west on the new continental railway, had facilitated establishment of the mountain national parks. Early in the 20th century, action was taken to develop national parks in eastern Canada, starting with the establishment of St Lawrence Islands National Park in 1904.

The world's first national parks administration, the Dominion Parks Branch, was formed in Canada in 1911 under the authority of the Department of the Interior. James B. Harkin, the first commissioner, served from 1911 to 1936. During his tenure, nine national parks were established: Elk Island (1913), Mount Revelstoke (1914), Point Pelee (1918), Kootenay (1920), Wood Buffalo (1922), Prince Albert (1927), Riding Mountain (1929), Georgian Bay Islands (1929) and Cape Breton Highlands (1936). Harkin emphasized protection of the natural resources of the new parks, the benefits of exploring these natural areas to society and the tourism value of the parks to the nation's economy. He oversaw the development of the National Parks Act, which was approved by the Parliament in 1930. Section four of the Act sets the guiding philosophy for the management of national parks, which "are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada, for their benefit, education and enjoyment... and the parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." While this statement continues as the foundational principle to guide the management of national parks, the Act has been updated twice, and is now titled the Canada National Parks Act.

While Banff was quickly joined by other national parks, which were eventually fused into a coherent system with the creation of the Dominion Parks Branch in 1911, the national park system was also joined over the years by other Parks Canada programs. National parks are one component of Parks Canada's system of heritage sites, which includes national historic parks, national historic sites, heritage canals, Canadian heritage rivers and national marine conservation areas, as well as one Canadian landmark (the Pingo, Ibyuk, located near Tuktoyaktuk, NWT).

There are now more than 40 national parks and national park reserves in Canada. National park reserves are established in areas affected by unresolved land claims and accepted by the Government of Canada for negotiation. These areas are designated to become national parks, but the final boundaries and other terms will only be finalized upon the resolution of the land claims. National parks and reserves range from Quttinirpaaq, 660 km from the North Pole, to Point Pelee at the southernmost tip of Canada's mainland; from Terra Nova on the east shore of Newfoundland to Gwaii Haanas on Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands).

The total area of Canada's national parks is more than 300,000 km2, an area 53 times the size of Prince Edward Island, or over 2.2 times larger than the three maritime provinces, and equal to over three per cent of Canada's landmass. The national parks range in size from Wood Buffalo, the equivalent of Switzerland, to Point Pelee, which, for its small size of 15 km2, is biologically rich.


National parks are protected under the federal Canada National Parks Act from all forms of industrial development including mining, forestry, oil and natural gas exploration and development, and hydro-electric development, as well as commercially extractive activities such as sport hunting. The emphasis is on providing activities consistent with the protection of park resources while providing exceptional visitor opportunities.

The first national parks policy, produced in 1964, drew attention to the importance of protecting natural resources in the parks. In 1986, a separate policy for national marine parks, now called national marine conservation areas, was approved. The current Guiding Principles and Operational Policies include policies for both parks and marine conservation areas. The policy emphasizes that, in order to protect resources, natural ecological processes must be allowed to function in parks with minimal interference from people. It also provides a framework for the long-range planning of new parks and for the provision of quality visitor services and appropriate recreational opportunities.

In 1988 and 2000, Parliament amended the legislation administering the national parks to focus on ecological integrity. The Act currently states: "Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, shall be the first priority of the minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks." The intent is to ensure natural ecological processes continue to function with minimal interference, thereby ensuring the perpetuation of naturally evolving land and water environments, and their associated species.

Under certain conditions, however, active manipulation of natural ecological processes does take place. Active manipulation is necessary if the balance of park ecosystems has been so altered by human activities that a natural environment cannot be restored through natural ecological processes, or if park visitors, facilities or neighbouring lands are threatened. Culls of hyper-abundant species when they impact endangered species (e.g., deer overgrazing in Point Pelee), the reintroduction of endangered species (e.g., the black-footed ferret) and the use of controlled burns to restore fire dependant ecosystems, are all examples of active manipulation of national park ecosystems for the purpose of maintaining or restoring ecological integrity.

Sport hunting is prohibited in national parks, but in most parks, sportfishing is permitted in designated areas. Many national parks, particularly in the North, are in areas in which Aboriginal peoples continue to rely on natural resources and in which their cultures reflect a close relationship to the land. Traditional subsistence harvesting by Aboriginal communities continues in many national parks, subject to conservation of the resource and co-operative management approaches through management boards with strong representation by Aboriginal peoples.

The effective protection and management of national parks requires an intimate understanding of park resources, the ecological processes controlling and influencing them, and the human impact influencing change in natural processes. Parks Canada has developed several tools to help achieve this understanding, such as the natural resource management process, the basic component of which is a comprehensive natural resources database, regularly updated for all parks and whereby certain indicators of the health of a park's ecosystem is monitored. This information ensures that the health of a park's ecosystem is assessed, the potential impacts and source of stresses on the park identified, and effective action taken.

Zoning is an integrated approach in which land and water areas are classified according to the ecosystem, cultural resource protection requirements and their capability and suitability to provide opportunities for visitor experiences. In other words, it is a technique for balancing preservation and use, and ensures that most national park lands are protected in a wild state.

The system defines five zones into which a park's land and water areas may be classified according to their fragility and their capacity to accommodate visitors. In Zone I, access is strictly limited or prohibited. Zone II comprises most of the national park lands and focuses on protecting the wilderness characteristics of an area, and providing opportunities for outdoor activities, which require few, if any, rudimentary services and facilities. Motorized access is prohibited in Zones I and II. Zones III and IV provide increasing visitor facilities and allow more activities. Zone V comprises town sites, visitor centres and park administration offices.

Under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), Parks Canada plays a significant role in the protection and recovery of endangered species because half of the species at risk currently listed in Canada are found on lands administered by Parks Canada. SARA is an important tool used by Parks Canada to help protect and manage species at risk and their habitats. Parks Canada does this by: 1) leading and participating in recovery teams; 2) developing and supporting recovery strategies and priority actions; 3) educating Canadians on species at risk; 4) collecting detailed information on species' distribution and population status; and 5) assessing how activities might affect species at risk within Parks Canada's protected heritage areas and monitoring these activities for their effects.

Establishing New National Parks

By 1970, 20 national parks had either been established or agreements leading towards their establishment had been signed with provincial governments. Up to that time, the national parks system was not developed in any systematic way; rather, it represented a collection of special places, created in some cases by political opportunism, accidents of geography or heroic efforts of dedicated citizens. They were also created for a variety of purposes, including protecting outstanding scenic areas, providing regional recreation areas, creating wildlife sanctuaries or stimulating flagging economies in areas of chronic underemployment. There was no vision or long-term goal.

In 1968, the federal government articulated a long-term goal when it called for the creation of 40 to 60 new national parks by 1985, the centennial year of Banff National Park. The question became where to establish these new parks. The guidance, or vision, was provided in the early 1970s by the National Park System Plan. This document provided a guide to the development of a finite system of national parks using the principle of "representativeness." It divides Canada into 39 national park natural regions.

The goal is to represent each natural region in the national parks system. Nearly 30 natural regions are represented by national parks and national parks reserves, with some natural regions possessing more than one park. Parks Canada's Guiding Principles and Operational Policies augment the system plan by, among other things, specifying that a park boundary should: 1) be of a size and configuration that protects ecosystems and landscape features representative of a natural region; 2) accommodate the habitat requirements of viable populations of wildlife species; 3) include an undisturbed core, maintains drainage basin integrity; and 4) offer opportunities for public understanding and enjoyment.

Since 1985, the centennial of national parks in Canada, the following new national parks or national park reserves have been created: Quttiniraaq (NU), Gwaii Haanas (BC), Aulavik (NWT), Bruce Peninsula (ON), Grasslands (SK), Vuntut (YT), Wapusk (MB), Tuktut Nogait (NWT), Sirmilik (NU), Gulf Islands (BC), Ukkusiksalik (NU), Torngat Mountains (NL) and Sable Island, offshore of Nova Scotia.

Lands have also been reserved in several unrepresented natural regions to create a national park on Bathurst Island (NU), in the Thaidene Nene area of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake (NWT) and in the Mealy Mountains of central Labrador. Work is also underway to assess the feasibility of establishing other new national parks in the South Okanagan-Lower Similkameen area of south-central British Columbia and the Manitoba Lowlands. Finally, Parks Canada is also working to establish national parks in several represented natural regions, including Nááts'ihch'oh to protect the headwaters of the South Nahanni River, which flows into Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Working with Aboriginal communities is key to establishing new national parks. For example, in 2009 Parliament was able to complete a six-fold expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve because of the collaboration between Parks Canada and the Dehcho First Nations, who sought to protect the South Nahanni River watershed. In making Nahanni the third-largest national park in Canada, the partnership between the Government of Canada and the Dehcho resulted in one of the most significant conservation decisions in a generation, including the protection of habitat for grizzly bears and caribou.

Visitor Activities

The early national parks focused on providing recreational facilities with leisure orientation, for example, golf courses, tennis courts and ski resorts. Today the aim is to provide outdoor recreational opportunities consistent with the long-term protection of natural resources and requiring a minimum of facilities.

Hiking, canoeing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are examples of activities considered compatible with a park setting. In all national parks, naturalists are on hand to interpret the park environment to visitors and provide information on recreational activities. Interpretation programs are designed not simply to lecture visitors about the park but to facilitate learning through firsthand experience.

International Role

Canada's national park system is part of a global network of more than 100,000 protected areas in 120 countries and covering about 12 per cent of the planet's surface. As a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), Parks Canada contributes to the development of internationally-accepted standards and criteria for parks the world over. Parks Canada is also the primary agency responsible for fulfilling Canada's obligations under the World Heritage Convention of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The convention recognizes the responsibility of all nations to protect places of such unique natural and cultural value that they are considered part of the heritage of all mankind. Kluane, Nahanni, Wood Buffalo, Gros Morne and Waterton Lakes national parks and reserves, L'Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Park, the Burgess Shale of Yoho National Park and Anthony Island (better known by its Haida name, SGang Gwaay) Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve have been designated World Heritage Sites. The combined boundaries of Yoho, Jasper, Banff and Kootenay national parks, and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks (BC) make up the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.

A number of Canada's national parks are part of the world's network of biosphere reserves under UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme, which recognizes outstanding examples of natural ecosystems throughout the world. The national parks that are core protected areas within biosphere reserves include Waterton Lakes, Riding Mountain, Bruce Peninsula, St Lawrence Islands, Fundy, Kejimkujik and Georgian Bay Islands. Thus, not only are these areas making an important contribution to protecting specific natural areas, they are contributing to broader regional and global conservation initiatives.


With 11 of Parks Canada's 39 natural regions yet to be represented in the national park system, Parks Canada needs to secure the necessary support of provincial and territorial governments, Aboriginal peoples and local communities to establish new national parks. In five of the unrepresented natural regions, Parks Canada is actively working to secure the necessary agreements. These new areas would contribute significantly to protecting Canada's boreal forest, caribou habitat, river courses and endangered species.

One of the most prevalent threats to the ecological integrity of national parks, particularly those in the southern areas of Canada, is habitat fragmentation. This occurs when lands surrounding a park have been transformed into agricultural, urban, mining or forestry lands. Many of the habitats within southern parks are fragments of the original, and as such, they are directly affected by changes in adjacent lands. Certain species currently existing in the parks may not survive in the long-term, unless measures are taken in co-operation with local and regional land managers.

Parks Canada continues to work to establish regional approaches through partnerships with forestry and agriculture industries, Aboriginal communities, private landowners, environmental groups, provincial parks agencies and others. Some examples of this broad regional approach to park management being put into action include the model forest programs in Pacific Rim, Prince Albert, Jasper and Fundy national parks, and the biosphere reserve programs.

With Parks Canada at its centennial as the world's first national park service, its focus is on ensuring the national parks remain relevant to Canadian society by conserving and presenting some of Canada's iconic landscapes. This relevancy is found in its work to protect important examples of the nation's biological diversity and ensuring that national parks help mitigate the impact of climate change on ecosystems. The agency also works to ensure that a more urbanized population, which includes new Canadians and youth increasingly isolated from nature, are provided with unique and inspiring opportunities within national parks so that they emerge supportive of both the need to conserve nature and to maintain the national parks unimpaired for future generations. In keeping with this mandate, in 2013, Parks Canada announced an agreement with Ontario to establish the Rouge National Urban Park in the Rouge Valley area near Toronto.

Canada's National Parks and National Park Reserves

National Park/Reserve Province / Territory Year Established Park Area (sq km)
Banff National Park Alberta 1885 6,641
Glacier National Park British Columbia 1886 1,349.3
Yoho National Park British Columbia 1886 1,313.1
Waterton Lakes National Park Alberta 1895 505
Jasper National Park Alberta 1907 10,878
Elk Island National Park Alberta 1913 194
Mount Revelstoke National Park British Columbia 1914 259.7
Thousand Islands National Park of Canada (formerly St Lawrence Islands National Park) Ontario 1914 24
Point Pelee National Park Ontario 1918 15
Kootenay National Park British Columbia 1920 1,406.4
Wood Buffalo National Park Alberta & Northwest Territories 1922 44,802
Prince Albert National Park Saskatchewan 1927 3,874.3
Riding Mountain National Park Manitoba 1929 2,973.1
Georgian Bay Islands National Park Ontario 1929 25.6
Cape Breton Highlands National Park Nova Scotia 1936 948
Prince Edward Island National Park Prince Edward Island 1937 21.5
Fundy National Park New Brunswick 1948 205.9
Terra Nova National Park Newfoundland & Labrador 1957 399.9
Kejimkujik National Park Nova Scotia 1974 403.7
Kouchibouguac National Park New Brunswick 1979 239.2
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve British Columbia 2001 285.8 (land only)
Forillon National Park Québec 1974 240.4
La Mauricie National Park Québec 1970 536.1
Pukaskwa National Park Ontario 1978 1,877.8
Kluane National Park Reserve Yukon 1976 22,013.3
Nahanni National Park Reserve Northwest Territories 1976 30,000 (approx.)
Auyuittuq National Park Nunavut NPR 1976; NP 2001 19,089
Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland & Labrador 1970 1,805
Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan 1981 906.4
Minigan Archipelago National Park Reserve Québec 1984 150.7
Ivvavik National Park Yukon 1984 9,750
Quttinirpaaq National Park Nunavut 1988 37,775
Bruce Peninsula National Park Ontario 1987 156
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site British Columbia 1993 1,495
Aulavik National Park Northwest Territories 1992 12,200
Vuntut National Park Yukon 1995 4,345
Wapusk National Park Manitoba 1996 11,475
Tuktut Nogait National Park Northwest Territories 1998 18,181
Sirmilik National Park Nunavut 1999 22,252
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve British Columbia 2010 36 (land only)
Ukkusiksalik National Park Nunavut 2003 20,500
Torngat Mountains National Park Newfoundland & Labrador NPR 2005; NP 2008 9,700
Fathom Five National Marine Park of Canada Ontario 1987 112
Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area of Canada Ontario 2007 10,000
Nááts'ihch'oh National Park Reserve Northwest Territories 2012 4,850
Sable Island National Park Reserve of Canada Nova Scotia 2011 34
Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park Québec 1998 1,246

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