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Growing Together: Partnering at St. Lawrence Islands National Park (now Thousand Islands National Park) to Protect Natural and Cultural Resources

This year Parks Canada is celebrating its centennial as the world's first national parks service.   Recognized as a world leader in the conservation and presentation of this country's cultural and natural heritage, Parks Canada offers world-class experiences and educational opportunities for all.  These efforts are enriched by building meaningful partnerships, including with Indigenous communities.

The Thousand Islands, once romantically referred to as the "Garden of the Great Spirit," has been host to human activities and natural phenomena for tens of thousands of years.  Located along the international border at the confluence of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, this fascinating landscape is as much a part of the people inhabiting this area as they are part of the land. St. Lawrence Islands National Park / Parc national des Mille-Îles-du-Saint-Laurent

It is here that you will find Canada's fifth oldest National Park: Thousand Islands National Park (formerly known as St. Lawrence Islands National Park).  Even before its establishment in 1904, perceptions of the park's role were shaped and defined by those who made use of its resources including First Nations groups and local settlers.  Thousand Islands' current management plan expresses values relating both to its natural, built and intangible heritage.  This holistic approach to conservation is the result of an inclusive range of voices, including building closer relationship with the local First Nations community.

Parks Canada, over recent years, has been developing positive and constructive partnerships with Indigenous communities across Canada.  This new relationship is evident at Thousand Islands National Park which has become a partner with local First Nations to preserve the ecological integrity of the park.  This mutually beneficial relationship enhances Parks Canada's care of the park for future Canadians to enjoy while at the same time helping to strengthen and encourage First Nations culture and identity associated with the land. "In the Thousand Islands" 1842-83, LAC C-150416 / « Dans les Mille-Îles » 1842-83, BAC C-150416

To appreciate the Thousands Islands region is to recognize both the forces of nature that have acted to shape the land and acknowledge human activities and beliefs which have defined it.  Many First Nations groups, such as the Haudenosaunee and Algonquian, have used the islands for camping and hunting and gathering activities and they have never lost their spiritual attachment to the land.  The first Europeans were the French who passed through the region in the early 1600s.  As the gateway to the Great Lakes and the heart of the continent, the Thousand Islands became a heavily travelled maritime corridor for explorers, the fur trade, and later for merchants engaged in the forwarding of goods to and from the Great Lakes.  But it was only in the late 1700s that settlers, mostly United Empire Loyalists fleeing the United States, began to establish communities along the St. Lawrence River's north shore. US President Chester Arthur visiting the Thousand Ilsands in 1882, LAC C-028741 / Visite du président des États-Unis Chester Arthur aux Mille-Îles en 1882, BAC C-028741

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Thousand Islands became a popular retreat for the wealthy who arrived by rail and boats seeking to enjoy nature and escape the commotion of urban life.   Resorts and other forms of diversion were established to accommodate the sudden influx of city dwellers.  In 1856, many of the thousands of islands were held in trust by the Indian Department (later the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs) for the Mississaugas of Alnwick who continually pressured the federal government to dispose of the land and transfer the proceeds to them.  Efforts at selling the islands were not successful, although some were sold privately to individuals.  The sale of islands, coupled with the sudden influx of tourists, began to alarm local residents who felt a strong attachment to and ownership of the islands which they too used for leisure activities.  As a result, these citizens petitioned government authorities to reserve some space for use as public parks.

Protection came in 1904 when the Canadian government officially designated nine islands and a mainland parcel of land as a national park.  Soon after, plans were implemented to improve and add visitor facilities, such as docks and picnic shelters, andMallorytown Landing Pavillion c. 1904, Parks Canada / Pavillon de Mallorytown Landing c. 1904, Parcs Canada caretakers were hired for each of the island sites.  The park gradually expanded its holdings and now includes over 20 islands and a larger mainland component.  New perceptions of Thousand Islands National Park emerged in the 1960s.  Whereas park management had been centred on the recreational needs of locals and visitors, the focus shifted to the unique environment of the region.  Site staff now included naturalists and scientists who preserved and interpreted to visitors the natural wonders of the national park.  The park's first management plan was implemented at this time.  It made no mention of First Nations' connection to the land or of the significance of the park's cultural resources.

By the 1980s and '90s a new attitude in Canada towards ecological and heritage conservation had emerged.  The park's Chief Naturalist, Don Ross, documented the ecological resources of the park and the history of the park's islands landscape.  By the 1990s, the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Committee recommended heritage designation of 15 structures within the park (learn about these structures on the Canadian Register of Historic Places with the list provided below).  As Canadian society became more inclusive, Parks Canada initiated a dialogue in early 2000 between the park and local First Nations to facilitate greater understanding and appreciation of each party's view of the park.  The relationship was formally recognized with a Smoky Fire event held at the park on August 1-2, 2007 creating awareness of First Nations' relationship with and cultural and traditional use of land.

Thousand Islands, Parks Canada / Mille-Îles, Parcs CanadaMany Indigenous groups have a long association with the St. Lawrence River and its shoreline, which have sustained life with bountiful resources for generations.  In recent times, though, Indigenous communities in general have faced external and internal pressures.  Factors such as demands from outside governments, cultural assimilation, as well as the loss of their traditional economic base have added tensions within communities already facing internal frictions.

Despite these difficulties, First Nations' efforts to maintain their culture and identity attest to their perseverance in the face of these pressures.  Within this context, the relationship between Thousand Islands National Park and the local First Nations community has, and continues to play, a role in recognizing and reinforcing the contributions of Indigenous Peoples in Canadian society as well as helping to sustain  the living heritage of the community for future generations.

Parks Canada has not always upheld this model of cooperation.  Establishment of certain initial National Parks had Indigenous populations relocated while other Indigenous groups associated with the land in question were given no say in the establishment of these natural preserves.   As Canada redefined its legal and constitutional relationship with Indigenous Peoples in the 1970s, so too did Parks Canada.  It initiated policy and legislative changes to reflect a new acceptance of Indigenous perspectives of and contributions to resource conservation.  Many Indigenous working groups have since been established with Parks Canada to inform decisions affecting National Parks, National Marine Conservation Areas and National Historic Sites.

Thus far, the partnership developed at the park has produced positive outcomes for both parties: St. Lawrence Islands' newsletter, Pitch Pine Post, features articles by Indigenous Elders; various park staff, including summer students, have been recruited from the local community; a cultural preservation summer camp for First Nations youth has been implemented.  Most importantly, the park profits from Elders' traditional knowledge and responsible conservation of park resources all the while offering visitors enhanced learning opportunities and unique, world-class experiences of Canada's natural and cultural heritage.2010 Management Plan / Plan directeur 2010

The year 2011 marks Parks Canada's centennial as the world's first national parks service for the protection, enjoyment and education of Canada's outstanding national heritage.  The 2010 St. Lawrence Islands National Park Management Plan, guided by a holistic approach to resource conservation and presentation, is an exemplary model of respect and dedication Parks Canada strives to achieve in working to find common ground with multiple stakeholders on which to collaborate and grow for the benefit of all.


List of Federal Heritage Buildings designated within the park and their location and construction date: