Responsible tourism in Canada

Everything is big here. Even the issues around responsible tourism in Canada. And although Canada has a reputation for being environmentally sensitive and caring for the land, it isn’t always true, especially when you look at the big picture. It is a huge resource extraction-based economy, particularly in the Arctic regions. But also with regards to logging, which still happens in a big way – even in places like Vancouver Island, where you will see massive areas just ‘clear cut’. Clearcutting, as opposed to selective cutting of lumber, is very controversial regarding its sustainability. The other big issue is, of course, the Aboriginal culture, indigenous land claims and so on. Tourism is still slow to embrace Aboriginal communities and vice versa. So, just as your eyes will open wide when you first see the scope of Canadian landscapes, keep your eyes and ears open to the big issues too while you are there. They are still sensitive issues, and so tread carefully, but they are big all the same.

The environment

Drilling the Arctic

Canada is one of the biggest Arctic countries in the world and the melting of the Arctic ice has one huge knock-on environmental impact: facilitating access to oil. Some 90 billion barrels of petroleum – plus huge reserves of natural gas – are believed to lie above the Arctic Circle. Receding ice and new technologies mean that the reserves may not remain untapped for much longer.

The use of nuclear icebreakers, the hauling of icebergs to make way for rigs, and the creation of roads and pipelines all have the potential to cause havoc in these fragile ecosystems – not to mention the effects of yet more fuel being burned contributing to further climate change. And of course, an Arctic oil spill could be catastrophic for wildlife above and below the ice, with cleanup operations hampered by the rig’s inaccessibility and harsh conditions. WWF has more information on their website.

Thankfully, Chevron just put a stop to their plans to drill for oil in the Canadian Arctic, in December 2014, announcing that because oil prices have actually dropped by nearly half over the last six months, it is not worth their while. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of resource extraction possibilities.
What you can do
Canada-born Greenpeace is calling for a ban on new oil developments and all offshore drilling. Read all about their People vs. Oil campaign or make a donation to support their activism efforts.

WWF also does extensive work in the Arctic, including supporting polar bear research, assisting local communities to avoid conflict with wildlife, researching the impacts of climate change and establishing protected areas. They are also members of the Arctic Council, and as such can influence decisions made by the governing nations. There are several ways you can support WWF and their work.

People & culture

A unique way of life

The correct term for indigenous people in Canada is Aboriginal peoples in Canada, or Aboriginal Canadians. The term ‘First Nations’ only includes eight tribes, and doesn’t encompass the Métis or Inuit. All of these indigenous peoples have battled for centuries to maintain their unique ways of life. Long threatened by colonisation and European diseases, then “development” and relocation, today, Aboriginal peoples are largely recognised and protected, and communities are permitted to hunt and occupy their ancestral lands. But it is still a delicate area for many, and highly political. In addition, the ancestral lands are now facing a much bigger threat than ever before: climate change.

Over 150,000 Inuit are dependent on the ocean for fishing, whaling and hunting seals* – but without the ice cover to hold the land in place, the coast is eroding and villages are, literally, disappearing. The waters are rising around them and sea ice is flimsy – hunters can no longer drag their boats across it to the sea, leaving them stranded on the land and unable to sustain themselves and their families.

Arctic drilling also poses a threat to subsistence lifestyles, as does the disappearance of the wildlife upon which these people depend. And clear cutting, a process of logging that involves wiping out large swathes of forest, instead of small, carefully selected areas, is also having a major impact on Aboriginal communities maintaining their subsistence lifestyles of hunting and foraging. In December 2014, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) agreed to clear cut for the Whiskey Jack Forest, ancestral lands that the indigenous Grassy Narrows tribe depend on for survival**.

At Responsible Travel, we often suggest tourism as the panacea for all economic plights. But it is never that straightforward. And who are we to tell people living in a place what they can achieve through tourism? Our hosts must want to welcome guests, before we barge in and demand they open their arms. Several communities are seeing tourism as a way of preserving their culture and economic independence, but it is very early days.

*Source: BBC
** Source: Al Jazeera
What you can do
Visiting an Aboriginal community is an eye-opening addition to your Canadian vacation. However, it is often easier said than done, as Aboriginal tourism is still very thin on the ground. Understandably, there is still a resistance to commercialising culture, especially when it is tied up with complex political issues around land rights. However, some communities are embracing tourism. Good ways to contribute to the Aboriginal economy is to go on a guided walk, stop and buy at one of the many galleries and artisan workshops, or visit national park reserves. These are Aboriginal Reserves that have come under Parks Canada management, but which have strong connections with the indigenous people, such as the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island.
Tyson Touchie, Chief’s Speaker, Ucluelet First Nation who, with a working group, helped create the Kwisitis Visitor Centre at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve:
“We have always talked about planning for our grandchildren and their grandchildren, and I think the relationship with Parks Canada has been one where this has happened. As we have conserved our resources for future use.”

Hunting – preserving culture or preserving species?

In Canada, polar bear hunting is still legal for Aboriginal peoples. The allocation of hunting permits is based on regular monitoring of the populations, and quotas are then assigned to the communities. The hunting of polar bear – as well as of other species, including seals and whales – is a strong tradition for indigenous populations, and every part of the animal is used – from the fur to the meat and the fat.

In Canada, communities are also permitted to sell on their quotas to non-native hunters. Permits are sold as part of a package – including several days’ food, transport and lodging – and the hunter must be accompanied by an Aboriginal guide. With the experience costing tens of thousands of dollars, this is no small business, and many have come to depend on the income from hunters to remain in their ancestral lands, even as the sea ice melts and subsistence hunting becomes tougher. Although the hides are usually bagged by the hunters the Inuit, for example, will still eat and preserve all the meat. Hunting also allows for the management of the polar bear populations which are straying ever closer to inhabited areas.

It is worth noting that approximately 75 per cent of the polar bears legally killed in Canada are taken by hunters from the United States, due to the fact that the Aboriginal peoples sell their hunting permits – and the taking of trophies, i.e. heads, paws, claws and skins has been the norm. Until 2013, when the US government banned the importation of such trophies which was, hopefully, a step in the right direction to putting a stop to trophy hunting.

What you can do
We don’t advocate trophy hunting for tourists, but visitors should be aware that it is a traditional way of life here – and one which has been sustainable for thousands of years. As a visitor to an Inuit community, you should travel with an open mind, and engage with your hosts to learn more about subsistence living in the Arctic.
Mary Curry, from our supplier Adventure Life, shares her responsible travel advice for people visiting local communities in Canada: “For some people it can be very upsetting to see a skinned polar bear or a skull hanging up on someone’s doorstep – but that’s a common sight. Hunting wildlife that we would consider to be borderline endangered is legal by native people in some of these regions – narwhal, polar bear, even bowhead whales. So it’s important that people are aware that this is a subsistence culture and that hunting is very much key to their life.”


Respecting wildlife is a big deal in Canada. You can't visit Canada without being wildlife aware – something that sets it apart from the USA. Yes, you can see bears and moose in the USA, but the wilderness goes on for what feels like forever in Canada. Just presume that the next town is never going to appear. But an elk probably will. Similarly, wild animals are never far from the cities. It is not unusual for a moose to be spotted trotting around downtown Calgary. Or for there to be a cougar sighting in North Vancouver. Just because the cities are so close to the country's wild places.

Seeing wildlife in its own habitats in Canada is a must when you are here. It really puts Canada into perspective when you see an orca hunting off the north coast of Vancouver Island, or a polar bear strolling across the tundra en route to the freezing waters of Hudson Bay. But do so with expert guides; not only will you get much better sightings, background information and well equipped transport, but you will be safe. There are strict rules to be followed when watching wildlife, and qualified experts will make sure that you adhere to them.

One of the greatest ironies of Canada is that they still have whales and dolphins in captivity. And yet, off its coastlines, the real things bask and bliss out in their rightful homes. There are only two aquariums in Canada that keep dolphins and whales in captivity, but this is two too many. Thankfully the Vancouver Aquarium no longer holds orcas or belugas, but they do have dolphins. There are still belugas and an orca in captivity at Marineland Canada in Ontario.
What you can do
Do not give any business to dolphinaria, and try to dissuade others from going too. Support organisations trying to improve the welfare of dolphins both in the wild and captivity, such as Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the Born Free Foundation. And if you love whales and dolphins, consider vacations that involve responsible engagement with these fascinating sea creatures.

If you want to gain a greater understanding of cruelty against cetaceans, then the award winning documentary film, The Cove, is a must. It's based on former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry's journey to come to terms with something he now believes to be totally wrong: keeping dolphins in captivity. The film uncovers the shocking way in which Japanese fishermen capture dolphins to sell on to dolphinaria. Watch it for free on Top Documentary Films.
Laura McGowan, director International Centre for Responsible Tourism Canada, says: “While kayaking to see orcas, of course you want to get close. But our guide was amazing and explained that once you are within 100m of any cetacean, you have to lift your paddles off the water, and just sit there. You can't go closer to them. I know there are operators and guides, probably those closer to the urban areas, who aren't trained in these ethical wildlife watching guidelines, so visitors should be aware of that. So you have whale watching boats going out there, but not turning their motors off when they are near the whales, for example.”

Responsible tourism tips

Canada is the place to go for husky love. And they do love their huskies. Visitors to Canada can struggle with the idea of dogs being used for work, especially cuddly dog obsessed tourists like the British. But very quickly you realise that, although these are working dogs, they are also very happy dogs. Husky sledding, or mushing as it is often called, has long been part of the culture here. When you take a husky ride, you can feel that the dogs are doing what they love. Running. And also, you will rarely see a husky guide shout at his or her dogs. It is as if the human is being led by the dog, not the other way around. There are very strict rules about the welfare of the animals, although generally these rules are second nature to mushers anyway. All husky ride providers are visited by animal welfare vets regularly. Marijuana is pretty prolific in Canada, where recreational use was legalised in 2018. Rules change province by province, but mostly fall in line with the (fairly strict) local alcohol regulations. It's a completely different story in most of the USA, where a quick joint will get you thrown out of the joint. As in, deported. So if imbibing, remember to check your pockets before crossing any borders. Rodeos are not really high up on the responsible tourism list. Indeed, Calgary Stampede, the most famous of all, is the target of much animal welfare campaigning every year. A ten day rodeo event in July, where animals are subjected to fear and extreme stress for mere entertainment is not only outdated but also unethical. The Stampede does defend itself as taking due care of all animals, which include not only livestock but also horses pushed to extremes, and often death, while chuckwagon racing. Animal welfare organisations are seeking to ban, in particular, the barbaric practices of calf roping and steer wrestling. See the Vancouver Humane Society for more details on the rodeos just getting it wrong, or read more on our stance on rodeos and stampedes.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: chris salt] [Drilling the Arctic: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos] [A unique way of life: Ansgar Walk] [Wildlife: Dennis Jarvis]