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NatureLink: Connecting newcomers to nature

Thomas arrived in Toronto from Ethiopia as a refugee in February 2017. He was blown away by the size and diversity of the city, but had only stepped foot outside it once in five months. A recent outing to Rouge National Urban Park offered a second escape. “It’s nice to just get outside without the sounds of the city in the background, and this is only the second chance I’ve had so far.”

Thomas had been invited as a part of MEC partner Parkbus’s NatureLink program, which takes new Canadians and urbanites with transportation barriers to outdoor destinations. Parkbus has been shuttling city dwellers to the great outdoors for seven years now. Founders Alex Berlyand and Boris Issaev have taken passengers to Algonquin, Killarney, Elora Gorge and Grundy Lake Provincial Park. When they heard about Parks Canada’s development of Rouge Park, the country’s first ever Urban National Park (categorized as such due to its proximity to Toronto), they knew it was a great opportunity for their NatureLink initiative.

The program was coined by Parkbus ambassador Julia Bitan and kicked off in winter 2016, when the crew took a group of Syrian refugees to Arrowhead National Park. For many Syrians, it was the first time they’d seen snow. This year’s trip to Rouge Park was a little closer to home, but coming in at more than 21 times the size of New York’s Central Park, it still feels a world away.

This outing also coincided with the Rouge National Urban Park Flagship BioBlitz event in June. BioBlitz is the place to be for nature lovers, those into classifying organisms (taxonomic experts) and citizen scientists. Everyone was treated to a unique day outside observing the area’s flora and fauna.

Parkbus Naturelink
Parkbus Naturelink

The day’s activities included scouting for nesting turtles on a marshy nature walk, meeting falcons and partaking in some wall climbing – far from average for those who had yet to step foot outside the city limits. “I have always been an outdoor enthusiast,” says Boris, “but my family and I lived in Toronto for seven years before I was able to buy a car and start exploring.”

Child swinging outside

Boris knows firsthand how few transit connections there are to outdoor areas, especially if you live downtown. “From personal experience, I can say that new Canadians are unfortunately one group for whom opportunities like this are few and far between.”

At NatureLink’s core is relief from the frenetic energy that can accompany moving to a city – solace and solitude for those unaccustomed to city life, plus a chance to play outdoors and relax in their new home.

Parkbus Naturelink group

“This whole thing is just such a great gift to Canada and to the Greater Toronto Area for Canada’s sesquicentennial,” shares Omar McDadi, external relations manager for Rouge Park. “To be able to bring so many people from so many different backgrounds right across the economic spectrum to explore here… we’re stoked about it. It’s awesome.”

Photos by Danielle Marr

Danielle Marr
Danielle Marr

Globetrotting storyteller frequently spotted between her rescue dog Millie and a campfire or taking off on a hike.