Meet Parks Canada's Youth Ambassadors: Justin Fisch and Minh-Tam Thompson

Photo: Parks Canada.

Photo: Parks Canada.

Canada's parks are beautiful. It doesn't matter what part of Canada you live in - chances are, there's some breath-taking nature somewhere close to home. 

It's a big dream of mine to travel across this country to see the amazing parks and protected areas that make Canada famous for its natural beauty. Parks Canada's Youth Ambassadors, Justin Fisch and Minh-Tam Thompson, did just that.

This past summer, these two young Canadians boarded the train and showed the country how to access these wonderful parks. I connected with them to see how their experience was going and to make myself a little bit envious of their explorations.

Kyle: What made you want to apply for the Parks Ambassadors program?

Minh: For me, the opportunity to explore some of Canada’s coolest places was definitely a big factor. Not just seeing these amazing places, but being able to meet the different people who call these places home was also something that drew me into submitting an application. Our country is so big and this program is a great way to connect to places and to people.

Justin: I first became enamoured with the challenge of getting young people outdoors as a 19-year-old outdoor guide at the University of Florida. There, I quickly realized that people associated little outdoor beauty to this magical state, other than its beaches.

For me, Canada holds much of the same challenge. Young Canadians tend to see our gloriousRocky Mountains as the great outdoors, the place to be discovered. Yet each and every day, they forget about the ever so important treasures in their own backyards: whether they be the historic canoe routes of Kejimkujik, the seaside bluffs of Pukaskwa, or the crested buttes of Grasslands.

Kyle: Why do you love the outdoors? Was there a particular moment or memory from your childhood that comes to mind when you think of your admiration and connection to nature?

Minh: I can’t pick out one particular moment from my childhood that sparked that connection to nature, but my love for the outdoors definitely comes from a childhood spent playing outside. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of me picking flowers, collecting snails or drawing with chalk on every outdoor surface (unfortunately, mom didn’t appreciate my art). I was lucky enough to grow up next to a little ski hill and have a backyard backing onto some forest and river space, which no doubt had a big impact on my love for being outside!

Justin: My connection to nature definitely dates back to the childhood I lived in Waverley, Nova Scotia. A good 30 minutes from the metro centre, our neighbourhood was one of overhanging trees, hidden forts, treacherous treehouses, and productive ponds. There was never a particular moment I remember being all of a sudden “connected” to nature - it happened every day. I thought it was part of every day life. Only later did I ever realize how wrong I was.

My “admiration” for the grandeur of nature, on the other hand, came from a trip out west, to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, at just eight years old. Here, I was awestruck by the beauty of the mountains and the colour of the water. This detracted me for too long from the amazing natural settings in my home province of Nova Scotia, which I left undiscovered in favour of yearly trips west. I came to love the outdoors when I rediscovered the small beauties in every aspect of nature.

Kyle: Tell me about your train trip across central and western Canada. What are you aiming to show young Canadians through your journeys?

Minh: Our train trip started in Vancouver and ended in Ottawa. We visited the national parks and historic sites located near the stations in all of the provinces we were able to stop in. By taking the train, we got to encourage young people to opt for the more comfortable and scenic way of travelling the country. It’s a totally different experience when you travel by rail.

Justin: But more than anything, travel by rail is a historic connector of our nation, while holding the key to our future sustainable development. The Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways were the impetus for the creation of some of our earliest national parks and national historic sites. More than half of the train stations we visited on our journey are national heritage railway stations, conserved for their commemorative value to our country.

Kyle: What’s your favourite moment of the train tour so far?

Minh: My favourite moment of the train tour was seeing all of the different people who ride the train. It’s really interesting to meet people from all over Canada and abroad going to different places for different reasons. Everyone has a different story and it’s cool to hear theirs and share ours.

Justin: My favourite moments have been the short breaks when the train stops for 10-30 minutes along our journey. I’m always one of the first ones to the door to disembark and explore the towns before the train putters on to its next destination. Here, I’ve gotten short snippets of life across Canada, which only further encourage me to return someday soon.

Kyle: What do you think is the most prevalent barrier that youth face to connecting and experiencing the outdoors?

Minh: I think the biggest barrier preventing youth from experiencing the outdoors is the idea that there is an “outdoorsy” type of person, or that “outdoors” means extreme backcountry. Changing the perception that nature is a scary place for experts will help get more young people interested in exploring the outdoors. Even starting small with gardening or walking your dog, then progressing to little hikes and so on, are good first steps to getting people to experience, get comfortable, and connect with the outdoors.

Justin: Like Minh, I think that we need to break down the barriers about there being “outdoorsy” vs “non-outdoorsy” people out there. Specifically, people with experience in the outdoors should take it upon themselves as a personal challenge to expose as many of their friends, family, and strangers as possible to outdoor activities. Capacity and knowledge, in my humble opinion, is the most pressing barrier that youth face to experiencing the outdoors. With self-confidence in their abilities, youth will find the time and money to connect to nature. I’m confident of that.

Kyle: What can Canadians of all ages and experience levels, do to help youth connect with nature?

Minh: Canadians can share! Whether it be stories or photos, it’s important to share positive experiences in the outdoors to get others excited and inspired to do the same. Hearing these stories will help youth connect with nature.

Justin: Organize trips!  Don’t wait for group consensus, a club’s initiative, or your next family vacation - just do it. If only one person joins you on the first go, you’ll get two next time, guaranteed!  Make the outdoors a social experience.