Coral Thew, interpretation co-ordinator for the Parks Canada Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Long Beach Unit, says she has “the best office in the world.” Yes, it may be in a trailer, but she has a priceless view and some fascinating neighbours. “Black bears sometimes come down in our back area. Eagles soar by and seagulls flock around us.”
Thew oversees a staff of four heritage interpreters whose role is essentially to explain the park’s natural and cultural environment to visitors. This work can take the form of daytime guided hikes on the seashore or through old-growth rainforest, or specific tours to watch local birds or learn about tide-pool creatures. There are also historical hikes and First Nations cultural walks. Most evenings, there are stage presentations in the Green Point Campground Theatre. These can be lectures or costumed dramas about the park’s history or the legends of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.
Thew is the supervisor/evaluator of these productions and tours. Involved in theatre since her teens, she helped found the Vancouver Youth Theatre and eventually earned a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Calgary. She first got involved in interpretation at Kananaskis Provincial Park. “There was a troupe of us ― interpreters and musicians, costumers, set builders,” she recalls. “We’d write our own shows and songs about the natural and cultural history of the area. The response was great. People would wave their lighters in the air after our shows. We were like rock stars.”
Online training and professional certification as a heritage interpreter is currently available through the emerit program, offered through Tourism HR Canada. Because of her considerable experience and standing at Parks Canada, Thew successfully completed emerit Certification. As one of the largest employers of interpreters in Canada, Parks Canada now uses emerit Training and Certification, which fosters high professional standards and is offered in both English and French. “It was the first training program that really talked about personal suitability qualities that an interpreter needs to achieve his or her goals,” says Thew. “I liked that it was very direct and clear.”
To prepare for a career like hers, Thew recommends checking out the Public Service Commission of Canada’s Federal Student Work Experience Program. “We also encourage young people to get out in the environment and learn as much as they possibly can. Follow your curiosity. If you’re into birding, become an expert on it. It really doesn’t matter where you come from or what background you have ― it’s your curiosity and eagerness that gets you a job as a heritage interpreter.” She also notes that interpretation is offered in tourism programs at a number of universities. “If you have a particular passion, you can usually get a job in it,” she says.
The rewards include “the nicest working environment in the world” and interaction with visitors who are genuinely interested in your depth of knowledge. “My staff always talk about seeing people day after day coming back again and again to see what will be presented today. You also start to see them year after year and you see the kids grow up. They write us letters and send us cards. You can feel like you’re making a difference.”