How to Pitch a Tent
Schooling new Canadians in the ancient art of camping
Adozen immigrants sit in a classroom. The walls are plastered with world maps, desks are stacked with maple cookies, and a table is piled high with tarps and sleeping bags. They’ve come to learn about the venerable Canadian practice of sleeping under the stars, also known as camping. The workshop is a Parks Canada initiative, started in 2011, meant to ease newcomers into the wild. This session, held last year inside an Edmonton Catholic Social Services office, is one of the agency’s biggest yet: forty-seven people from three continents have committed to spending the September long weekend surrounded by Jasper National Park’s mountains, lakes, and glaciers, and a quarter of them have shown up to this pre-trip primer.
“Can anyone translate Arabic?” asks settlement-orientation coordinator Frank Bessai, attempting a to conduct a roll call over an eight-language cacophony.
Hanan Omar, a young Somali woman clad in black from head scarf to sneakers, eagerly raises her hand. Balqees, an Iraqi mother with adult children, and Mohammad, a Syrian father of seven, slide their chairs close to hers. Bessai sets up one translation network between them and another between Kirundi speakers, and places himself between those who speak Russian. He gives the floor to park interpreter Kevin Gedling. “What is a national park?” Gedling asks, slowly enunciating every word. “It’s an example of a special place in Canada. Our job at Parks Canada is to protect national parks and to show national parks to people who live in Canada and around the world. And that includes you.”
That’s the pitch, but it’s not the whole story. Since 2001, national parks visits have stalled at around twelve million, down from sixteen million the year before. As a result, the federal agency has begun to focus on attracting young people, urban dwellers, and newcomers to Canada. For the first two target demos, Wi-fi hotspots have been added to some parks, and so have powered, heated, A-frame cabins; for the third, there’s Learn to Camp.
Nearly half of Learn to Camp’s 1,800 annual participants come because they’ve been told that camping is fun, according to Parks surveys. A fifth attend because they’ve heard camping is a core Canadian tradition, as much a part of our identity as hockey and politeness. But many immigrants to the country make their homes in urban spaces and seldom get out to see the remote wilderness by which Canada defines itself internationally. So for Parks, the message