Connecting in nature

Experiencing nature can heal trauma and bring people together.
Read Story

Article Quotes

Translators were brought in to help the Syrian refugees who had come camping with the language barrier. However, the language of nature proved universal.

Canada has 46 national parks and reserves, 171 national historic sites and four national marine conservation areas, adding up to 300,000 square kilometres of protected areas. They represent the country's massive, yet varied, landscapes from the towering mountains of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, to the sparkling sands of Sable Island National Park Reserve off Nova Scotia, to the lush rain forest of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on the coast of British Columbia. All these places tell Canada's ecological and cultural story. As its population becomes increasingly urban – and with the average park over two hours from a city – the need is to make more visiting opportunities available.

Parks Canada aims to reach newcomers to the country, give them the opportunity to learn basic camping skills and build confidence to enjoy the outdoors. These include refugees fleeing their home, thus posing a dilemma. Images of crowded camps of displaced people dominate the narrative of the Syrian refugee crisis. Why trigger potential traumas? After so much turmoil and hardship, years spent in uncertainty, does another night in a tent sound appealing?

Parks Canada’s Learn-to Camp programme began in 2011, and was an instant success. The idea is simple: Go camping! Start with offering the basics: what equipment to bring, how to set up a tent and cook on a fire. Using community partnerships in organising overnight events helped bring together committed camping enthusiasts and eager participants. Since its inception, the program has helped 10,000 people discover the joys of camping in national parks and national historic sites. It has been well-attended by new Canadians from the start.

Building on the programme's success, the Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia decided that it could provide an excellent chance for recently arrived Syrian refugees to experience much needed time in nature and to have a chance to bond with other families from their country. Throughout the Syrian refugee crisis, Canada has been a vocal leader in advocating for the rights of refugees and it has rolled out an ambitious resettlement program for over 25,000 immigrants. The association identified five Syrian families in Halifax, Nova Scotia (63 people in total) to take part in an overnight program in July 2016 in the province's Kejimkujik National Park. Many of them had been in Canada for less than five months so translators were brought in to help with the language barrier. However, as is often the case, the language of nature proved universal.

As one of the founders of a small company, A for Adventure, and a professional outdoor enthusiast who has worked in the field of mental health and addictions for many years, I have seen first-hand the power of nature in helping to process trauma and aid healing. I wanted to inspire the younger generation to connect with the natural world, and grow up with a sense of wonder. The idea for a children’s book was born: “A is for Adventure” a rhyming A to Z book that aims to ignite the imagination with themes of curiosity, creativity and resilience. The importance of storytelling is one of the most motivating, yet often overlooked, reasons why people seek nature.

Storytelling – whether through radio, television, events, publications, videos, photos and social media – has always been the principal way through which we foster dialogue around the importance of protecting and connecting to this beautiful planet. As the conversation grew to involve more people, A for Adventure grew into a movement, a rallying cry, and we were asked to work with an ever-growing list of companies and organizations. After meeting Parks Canada, we realized that we shared common goals of connecting people to nature.

Parks Canada invited us to join select Learn-to Camp events throughout 2016, including the one hosting Syrian families at Kejimkujik. It was a hot July day when we all met in the group campsite. Thick, clumsy clouds threatened rain all morning, but no one seemed to notice. Bright yellow tents soon popped up in all directions, buzzing with excitement like a village of bumble bees. The day was broken into different workshops around the fundamentals of camping and outdoor pursuits, with – as in all Learn-to Camp programs – plenty of time for taking things slow, allowing for lots of questions and a high dose of fun. Structured activity is balanced around ample amounts of free time and exploration.

We found ourselves being led down a short wooded path by two young kids. “What’s this called? What kind of tree is that? LOOK AT THIS BUG!” We dug our hands into the cool mud below an oak tree and cleared away some dead leaves to discover a salamander. As wonder filled their eyes, I I explained how something as small as the salamander, had a very important job helping to recycle plants in forest.

Later that night around the campfire the group heard traditional songs by a local indigenous interpreter. The sound of her drum echoed across a still lake. The stars were out in full effect. The moon hung low. A father stroked the head of a tired child. “This... this is how to live” he said slowly.

We all understood. In that moment we were all connected. Learn-to Camp isn’t just about acquiring new skills, it’s about learning from each other. We all left with the unspoken knowledge that we had learned far more than we had taught, and wanting to return next year.

Connecting to nature offers a sense of communal destiny, a belonging between humans and the rest of the natural world. When we immerse ourselves in nature we are confronted with the delicate balance that is life. Nature can awaken the mind and the spirit. It offers rewards of enhanced creativity, enriched curiosity, but most importantly it gives the gift of resilience. We don’t look to nature to escape our lives, we return to it because it’s our home.