2005 EWM graduate – Park Warden with Parks Canada Law Enforcement Branch
Nicolas Cotter is one of those lucky people who has the job he dreamed of when he was a high school student. That was when he and his family took a trip through the Rockies in a motor home with an uncle from Edmonton. “I saw mountains and grizzlies and bighorn sheep and I thought if I could become a Park Warden in the Rocky Mountains, I wouldn’t even need a paycheque,” he says with a smile. Today, Nicolas is a Park Warden with the Law Enforcement Branch of Parks Canada. He is posted in Lac Louise, Alberta where he is part of a team of 6 wardens (4 males and 2 females) that are responsible for the western half of Banff National Park as well as the British Columbia National Parks – Yoho and Kootenay. And he gets a paycheque for doing the work he loves.
How did Nicolas get there? First, when it came time to choose a Cegep program, he chose Environmental and Wildlife Management at Vanier College, the only Cegep to offer the program in English. Environmental and Wildlife Management is a three-year science-based technology program that provides theory and hand-on training in ecology, environmental monitoring and the management of natural resources. EWM seemed the best first step for the career Nicolas had set his sights on.
For Nicolas, who grew up in Pincourt, the outdoor aspect of several courses in his program was one of the things he liked best at Vanier. Above all, he has great memories of the 6-week summer training he did at the EWM field station located in the Laurentians. “The field station was great,” he says. “I remember being in a canoe on the lake, doing a forestry survey, climbing rugged hills in the surrounding Laurentian mountains and learning about all kinds of vegetation. We slept in dormitories at the field station but you could also sleep in a tent. After a while I stopped using a tent and began sleeping most of the summer and fall nights outside under the stars.”
Great as it was, a DCS in Environmental and Wildlife Management did not lead directly to his dream job. His next step was to obtain a double Bachelor degree in Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism and Natural Science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he was granted advanced credits in seven courses thanks to his studies at Vanier. While still an undergraduate, Nicolas spent his summers working as a Seasonal Conservation Officer in Fort McMurray, where the Alberta oil sands are located, roughly 13 hours north of Calgary.
“It was a place with many large, rich drunk guys,” Nicolas says with a laugh. “I was always outweighed and outnumbered. I’m 6’2” and weigh a 155 lbs, so I’m tall and skinny and not a fighter. I’m a talker. I definitely developed my persuasion skills on that job. I couldn’t have asked for a better training location on talking to make a point and not backing down. We didn’t carry side arms. We wore Kevlar bullet proof vests and we had pepper spray, a collapsible baton, handcuffs and a shot gun in the jeep for bears.”
Following his university studies, Nicolas was recruited by the Parks Canada Law Enforcement Branch. He was sent for 3 months warden recruit training at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Academy in Regina. He recalls that he felt very privileged to be there as only 9 warden recruits were selected out of 800 applicants across Canada.
“There are only 85 park wardens in all of Canada so it was pretty competitive becoming one, and it’s everything I thought it would be.”
Park Wardens are armed Federal Peace officers, equipped and trained by the RCMP and responsible for law enforcement in Canada’s National Parks. In national parks they have the same authority as police officers. Their mandate is to enforce the National Parks Act as well as provincial legislation such as the Liquor Act and Traffic Safety Acts. Park Wardens will also deal with criminal code offenses such as drunk driving and drugs if found committing. “We don’t look for those offenses but if we come across them we can arrest people and turn them over to the police,” explains Nicolas.
“No two days are the same, and a typical workday depends on the season but I usually start out in the office checking email. Then I might have two or three ongoing investigations to work on. It’s incredible the quantity of paperwork we end up with and I’ve found that I have to keep up with it on a continual basis or court deadlines are not met. After that I might jump in the truck and start patrolling, heading to wherever I can find people using the park. In the afternoon, I might hike on a trail checking for illegal campsites or other suspicious activity. They say that Banff National Parks receives 4 million visitors a year so a lot can happen with that many people hiking, skiing and driving through the park on the Trans-Canada highway.”
“In the fall, we conduct boundary patrols to make sure that the hunting which is allowed in the province does not enter into the National Park. To do this we go out for 9-day shifts, riding from cabin to cabin. Just as warden service did when it began in 1909, we still do many of our backcountry patrols on horseback. We each lead a packhorse behind us with a special pack saddle on which we can tie 2 large wooden boxes that contain our food for the 9 days. I’ve seen spots that ATVs would have gotten stuck in for sur but the horses would pick their way along and get us through. It’s an incredible way to travel in the mountains.”
His advice to high school students wondering what to do: “Go for what you’re most interested in and think about a career that might be connected to it further down the road. If you think you might be interested in becoming a Park Warden apply for a summer job as a Provincial Conservation Officer in Alberta or Saskatchewan or a Provincial Park Warden in Ontario. They are great starting points and doing a ride along with one of their officers will help you gather info and see if it’s a career you’d be interested in.”
If you’d like some advice regarding a career in Natural Resource Law Enforcement, feel free to contact Nicolas at Nicolas.firstname.lastname@example.org. He’d be happy to help you.