Protected Areas | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Protected Areas

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) definition of a protected area is "a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values." Protected areas may be comprised of terrestrial, freshwater, or marine areas, or a combination of the above.

The primary purpose of a protected area (PA) is conservation of biological diversity (see biodiversity), although some PAs incorporate other goals, including cultural and historical preservation, visitor experience and education, recreation, scientific research, or contribution to local economies. PAs can also serve as scientific benchmarks from which to examine the effects of global environmental change. Since their beginning in Canada, governments and private organizations have created more than 5,000 PAs. Total, these PAs account for more than 1,000,00 km2 of land.

The IUCN defines a 6-level classification scheme for PAs based primarily on management objectives. These range from PAs managed for strict protection of nature (category I) through to those managed for both protection and sustainable use (categories V and VI). In Canada, the majority (approximately 85%) of protected areas under federal, provincial or private jurisdiction fall under IUCN categories I (strict protection) or II (ecosystem conservation and recreation).

History of Protected Areas in Canada

Canada has a long history of protected area designation and management. The nation's first National Park, among the first in the world, was established in 1885 as Rocky Mountain National Park (present-day Banff National Park). The country's first provincial parks also emerged at this time, including Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park (1893), which was the first Provincial Park established to protect the natural environment. The first municipal park in Canada was Mount Royal Park established in Montréal (1872).

The world's first parks service, the Dominion Parks Branch (now the Parks Canada Agency) was created in 1911 to oversee the national parks system. In 1930, the first National Parks Act was passed, which stated that national parks "shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for future generations." In the early years, the emphasis of Canada's PAs was primarily economic, and it would be some time before biodiversity conservation would come to be seen as the dominant role. The 1930 National Parks Act set up a dual mandate of use and protection, and this complicated park management for decades. Subsequent revisions to the Act have placed progressively stronger emphasis on conservation, culminating in the 2000 Canada National Parks Act definitively establishing ecological integrity as the first priority for national parks management.

In the late 1990s, the PA system began to focus on marine and freshwater protected areas. The 1997 Oceans Act and the 2002 National Marine Conservation Areas Act provided the legal framework for creating a system of marine protected areas. Other emerging forms of PAs include Indigenous and jointly managed ones.

From its beginnings in 1885, Canada's protected areas system (federal, provincial, municipal and private) now includes in excess of 5000 PAs, representing over 1,000,000 km2, or nearly 10% of the terrestrial area of the country, under various levels of protection. Less than 1% of marine area under Canadian jurisdiction is currently contained within a PA.

Types of Protected Areas in Canada

Federal Protected Areas

National Parks The national parks system is administered by Parks Canada and individual parks are established to be representative of the country's natural regions. National parks are protected for ecological integrity as well as for public appreciation and enjoyment. This PA type comprises the largest portion of area protected in Canada. National park reserves are a special category of national park, which exists in areas subject to unresolved Indigenous land claims.

National Marine Conservation Areas Large marine or freshwater PAs are managed by Parks Canada for both conservation and sustainable use. National Marine Conservation Areas are established to be representative of Canada's marine ecological areas. National marine conservation area reserves may also be established in areas subject to Indigenous land claims.

Marine Protected Areas Established and administered by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, marine protected areas protect and conserve important fisheries or marine mammal habitat.

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries Environment Canada manages migratory bird sanctuaries to protect critical habitats for migratory birds. Such areas may be under federal, provincial or private ownership.

National Wildlife Areas Managed by Environment Canada, national wildlife areas are established to protect nationally significant aquatic or terrestrial animal habitats. National wildlife areas existing in marine waters are termed marine wildlife areas.

Provincial Protected Areas

Every province and territory in Canada maintains a provincial park system. Provincial PAs come in many varieties and levels of protection, including provincial parks, ecological reserves, wilderness areas and wildlife management areas. Provincial parks represent the largest number of protected areas in Canada, though they tend to be smaller in size than national parks.

Municipal Protected Areas

Most municipalities and regional districts in Canada maintain a protected area system. The purpose of these parks varies from those devoted solely to recreation through to those managed for biodiversity conservation, but there is generally a stronger emphasis on recreation.

Indigenous Protected Areas

An emerging form of PA in Canada, Indigenous protected areas are those that Indigenous peoples directly administer, usually for conservation and traditional or sustainable use. One such protected area is the Meares Island Tribal Park in Clayoquot Sound, BC. In other cases (eg, many northern national parks), Indigenous peoples may jointly manage a protected area with another agency, usually federal, provincial or territorial governments. Ivvavik National Park was the first national park established through an Indigenous land claim settlement. It is co-managed by Parks Canada and the Inuvialuit.

In 2018, the Indigenous Circle of Experts created the concept of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA). Since then, IPCAs have been a means by which land can be protected with Indigenous peoples leading conservation efforts based upon Indigenous cultural and legal systems. Numerous applications have been put forward to create IPCAs. As of June 2023, there were three federally recognized IPCAs established in Canada.

Private Protected Areas

Private protected areas are those set aside by individuals or private organizations to conserve biodiversity or important habitats. The Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in Manitoba, Gault Nature Reserve in Québec and the Cathedral Lakes Resort (within Cathedral Provincial Park, BC) are examples of private protected areas in Canada.

Biosphere Reserves

United Nations Biosphere Reserves are a form of PA integrating conservation and sustainable use, and are comprised of a core protected area (often a national or provincial park), a buffer zone and an extended"zone of cooperation" focusing on sustainable use. Fifteen biosphere reserves exist in Canada, although they have no formal legal designation.


Protected areas in Canada today face a number of ecological, political, social and economic challenges.

PAs cannot survive on their own without a broader regional stewardship ethic, and challenges include how to better integrate PAs into their regional landscapes, as well as how to reconcile the objectives of PAs with those of Indigenous peoples, local communities and a range of other stakeholders.

While protected area systems in Canada have continued to expand, budgets for their management have typically not kept pace with this growth. Managing current and future demands in light of limited budgets is a significant problem.

Expanding and completing the national system represents a further challenge. Creating new PAs requires significant economic investment and political will, as well as cooperation among government agencies, First Nations and local communities. Expanding the protection of marine ecosystems will also be a particular challenge in the future.

Ensuring connectivity and establishing landscape-level approaches to PA planning is another difficulty, as neither endangered species nor pollution necessarily adhere to designated boundaries. Establishing connective corridors between PAs to facilitate species movement is critical in the face of global climate change. (See also Environmental Governance; Wildlife Conservation and Management; Wildlife Preserve.)

Further Reading