How to Pitch a Tent

School­ing new Cana­di­ans in the an­cient art of camp­ing

The Walrus - - MISCELLANY - By Omar Mouallem

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

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