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This past Labour Day weekend, my family and I piled up our car and headed for the most Canadian long weekend destination, the campground. Something about cooking over a fire, stars overhead, and sleeping in a tent with the rustling of animals providing the only soundtrack harkens an authentic Canadian experience. Why do so many Canadians seek the outdoors as a place to relax when it’s not always the most comfortable or relaxing? A 2017 Study by Kampgrounds of America (KOA) revealed that in North America camping is on the rise, especially amongst the younger generations. The connection to nature as emblematic of North American, and specifically Canadian culture has long historical roots, which in part explains the continued popularity of camping. But as with any cultural activity, many on the social justice obsessed left see that as precisely the problem with activities like camping. Like many of their crusades, this one against the outdoors and camping doesn’t mesh with the contemporary evidence.
In the past few years, scholars in the leisure and recreation sphere have begun to make arguments that activities like camping are racist or sexist. This has now leaked into the mainstream. Groups like the Sierra Club publish stories like this: The unbearable whiteness of hiking. Mountain Equipment Co-Op, a Canadian camping goods company, similarly staked the outdoors as a racial battleground to be overcome.
The basic premise is that camping and outdoor activities reflect the same privilege as general society. What’s even more odious about camping for these reformers is its ties directly to colonization, the idea of land as ownable (a commodity), and the eradication of indigenous tribes.
As with many arguments emanating from the social justice left, there are some critical issues in this process. By “taming” the wild, colonists in North America came into conflict with indigenous tribes, eventually displacing them. The early national parks were havens for the rich white urbanites, but were out of reach for the lower classes. There were attempts to appropriate Indigenous cultures as a way to increase travel to these parks. A classic example was the use of local indigenous boys as caddies on the golf course at Jasper National Park in Alberta, in addition to having indigenous performances to entertain the guests at the luxury resort. There is an unseemly past no doubt, but this also conceals the history of the appreciation of nature and its importance in building new societies in North America.
American environmental historian, Roderick Nash, wrote a seminal work exploring the relationship between North American culture and the idea of the wilderness. He argued that, “From the raw materials of the physical wilderness Americans built a civilization; with the idea of symbol of wilderness they sought to give that civilizations identity and meaning.”
The same drive to cement a strong connection between the land and the emerging culture existed in Canada as well. Perhaps to an even greater extent. It didn’t take long for these ideas to be merged into leisure activities. In the late 19th century, both American and Canadian governments created National Parks systems that cordoned nature into managed environments fit for leisure and recreation. People have been packing up to vacation in nature ever since.
From that history, contemporary cultural theorists took it a step too far. They argue that this history makes the outdoors inhospitable to anyone not white, and certainly to those who are not well to do. But that belies what’s actually happening at campsites and actively in the outdoors. That same 2017 study highlighted that visible minorities, namely Asians, have increased the camping presence dramatically. This study corroborates what I saw at my campsite on Labour Day. I did not see only white people camping, but a diversity reflective of Canada with many languages present and various ethnicities all enjoying the long weekend together. I also didn’t see anyone disparaging anyone else because of their identity or language, it was not a hostile place to non-white campers.
And that’s the major problem with these cultural theorists: they don’t adequately explain individual action in the world. Rather, they rely on vague applications of systemic issues rather than explanatory power or observable evidence. Start with the theory, end with the theory to fulfill the circular reasoning without hinting at discrepancies or errors in analysis. So what if campsites aren’t actively hostile to non-whites, with policies such as separate and inferior campgrounds or outright banishment due to skin complexion or language? That can be dismissed, instead, the theory reigns supreme.
There is nothing supremacist about the love of the outdoors. In fact, what I see is a perpetuation of a beautiful Canadian idea that nature is a place to be respected, enjoyed, and endured as part of a Canadian identity. While it may have originated with ideas of White supremacy in the late 19th century in Canada and the United States, that association can be dispensed with. Instead, we can appropriate that idea but remove that taint of racial identification and instead celebrate that idea as cultural. Love of the outdoors and embracing it remains a crucial part of Canada’s national psyche, and it matters not what colour you are to enjoy it. That’s what I see and what the research shows generally.
Don’t let the screeching of a few researchers and virtue signalling CEOs stop you from getting out and enjoying nature. Not only will you find a lack of racism, you will find a great community of people from all backgrounds who generally help each other out and have a smile on their face. The fact that some want to turn opportunities to bridge racial divides into chances to further divide tells us more about them than about the activities they mistakenly describe.