(Note: the following article first appeared on the Sierra Club BC website.)
The vision has to be kept by someone, maintained as a constant marker for the present and a permanent guide for the future. History cannot be certain exactly when this vision occurred. But July 29, 1910, was a likely moment. This was the day that Price Ellison of the Strathcona Discovery Expedition reached the summit of Crown Mountain in the heart of Vancouver Island. From this elevation, he and his astonished band of explorers could see the vast panorama of peaks and glaciers, of rivers and lakes, of great forests and deep valleys spreading out beyond them. Perhaps this was the moment when Ellison realized this magnificent place must be preserved as a park.
Visions, of course, are always the culmination of earlier experiences. Ellison had been asked by government officials to assess the significance to Canada and to British Columbia of this mountainous landscape rising to the west of Discovery Passage. He would already have known of the powerful Campbell River as it plunged over Moose and Elk Falls into a spray-drenched gorge before curving into a sprawling estuary beside a little community of pioneering settlers. He would have known of the huge tyee salmon provided by the river, the teeming masses of fish in the adjacent ocean, and the intricate lacing of scenic islands that populated the nearby channels and fiords. He would likely have heard of the dramatic peaks and glaciers of Bute Inlet further to the east and north, as if they were heralding the promise further to the west. And, even before he reached the summit of Crown Mountain, he would have hiked through vast stands of great trees, almost unimaginable in their size and density.
Ellison would also have been familiar with Banff and Jasper, perhaps even visiting these two Rocky Mountain regions that had been recently made into national parks because of their scenic grandeur. He might have been one of the many tourists magnetically drawn in increasing numbers to the awesome power of these sites in a grand new Canada. Their symbolic significance to a fresh country bursting with self discovered pride was obvious. Indeed, Ellison’s discovery on Vancouver Island was a sensational climax to an exploration that was already identifying the geography of this nation as expansive, beautiful and incomparable.
And so, on March 1st, 1911, by an act of the legislature of the province of British Columbia, 250,000 hectares of the dramatic heartland of Vancouver Island was officially recognized and protected in perpetuity as Strathcona Provincial Park. And this significant occasion became the beginning of a long forgetting.
The subsequent history of Strathcona Park has been a mixture of sad failure and inspiring heroism. At first, subsequent governments increased its boundaries to include newly discovered wilderness treasures missed by Ellison’s expedition. But the park has always been threatened by economic opportunism ‹ violated by loggers, trespassed by prospectors, poked by drilling and defiled by a mine. Public outrage finally climaxed in 1988 when hundreds of people peacefully blockaded outright industrial development and 64 were arrested as they protested further desecration of a heritage they deemed to be both sacrosanct and inviolable. So was born the Friends of Strathcona Park, a gathering of resolute visionaries who remember Ellison’s vision, who are guided by a similar awe, and who recognize that the park must be preserved as a symbol of the integrity of nature so abused in a world gone berserk with a mania for exploitation and pillaging.
If sanity is not preserved in at least one place, it will disappear from every place. If we lose all vestiges of undefiled nature, then we will have nothing to remember of what was, and should be, and could be. The symbolic significance of Strathcona as BC’s first and largest park has changed during its first century of existence. No longer just a measure of a proud country, it is now an enlightening refuge in a pandemonium of venality, crass materialism, commercial opportunism, shameless greed and rampant hubris.
So the park is our connection to Eden, to the Great Beginning that binds us to our origin and our belonging. It is our communion with the still and eternal heart where thoughts are tempted into a timeless wisdom felt in the deepest centre of our being. In the long patience of the park’s ancient mountains and virgin forests, life somehow defines itself and death becomes insignificant. Such full moments of awareness are worth everything.
But it’s been a long struggle for the Friends and their friends. Almost single handedly their vigilance has repelled other mines, directed the drift of governments and engineered a master plan for the park. Now they are fighting the encroachment of machines and horses. In addition to repairing bridges while maintaining and relocating trails, they are also doing all those chores that the province has been too remiss to do.
The fiasco of government park policy makes no sense, even from an economic perspective. Parks ‹ remember Banff and Jasper ‹ lure people from across Canada and around the world. Such protected places are shrines on a planet of incessant urbanization. Besides offering spiritual nourishment, they generate commercial benefits that are ten-fold the cost of maintaining and supervising them. And the Friends would willingly share their experience of Strathcona with those visitors who come to pay homage to the same inspiring vision that once moved Price Ellison and his band of explorers.
This same vision is still alive in the Friends. In the presence of government forgetting and neglect, they have become the defenders of the sacred, the keepers of the park. And everyone everywhere ‹ whether they know it or not ‹ owes them a debt of gratitude.