ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — People in Newfoundland and Labrador's capital are tossing their plastic buckets in exasperation after a request from Parks Canada to stop picking blueberries on Signal Hill.
"It's really stupid," said Eleanor Dawson, who walks the hill almost every day and has been picking berries up there for most of her life.
The berry pickers on Signal Hill are mostly older people who aren't doing anybody -- or anything -- any harm, Dawson said. "They're up there with a cup, getting a cup of berries," she said. "It's the same people, and they're very local. It's a real community thing."
Signal Hill is a national historic site overlooking downtown St. John's and is home to a popular 1.7-kilometre hiking trail that winds around the back of the hill, through wide, rocky areas carpeted in low-lying blueberry bushes. Come mid-August, the bushes are bursting with blueberries, and the bent-over backsides of eager pickers are easy to spot off the trails and among the shrubs.
That didn't seem to be much of a problem until Friday, when the federal parks agency said in an emailed statement that berry picking was prohibited. The berries are an important food source for animals and insects in the area, and an abundant and untouched wild berry crop will help these creatures survive, said Parks Canada spokesperson Fraser McCallum.
"Berry picking is not permitted at most national historic sites and national parks in Canada," he wrote, adding: "Picking berries along the steep embankments, hills, and uneven ground at Signal Hill National Historic Site poses a safety risk to visitors."
Dawson sees no merit in those claims, noting the number of people picking berries on the hill is insignificant considering the vast amount of land and berry bushes up there. "Most of the berries, you can't even access," she said. "There are so many crevices you can't even get into."
The people picking on Signal Hill are mostly local and likely don't have cars to get to some of the other choice spots on the island, where people can pick enough to sell at farmers markets, she added.
Dawson called the claims about safety hazards and uneven ground nonsense. "People can take responsibility for themselves," she said. "Has there ever been a berry picker that got injured up there?"
She notes the berry picking ban is comes on the heels of a few other Parks Canada decisions about Signal Hill that left the public shaking its head. George's Pond, which is about halfway up the hill, became a popular swimming site during the height of the pandemic last summer when community pools were closed. Parks Canada responded by putting up a sign at the pond saying swimming was forbidden.
In the summer of 2019, the agency erected a tall wooden fence near an area used for outdoor theatre productions, obstructing the view of the harbour and its surrounding city. After widespread public outcry, the agency tore the fence down. The debacle cost the department about $65,000 in construction and removal fees.
"Parks are for enjoyment," Dawson said. "Parks Canada has done a great job up there. I'm the first one to say that. But by the same token, you can't dictate how people enjoy a space."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press