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Creating Canada's National Parks

"Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather": Creating Canada's National Parks

"It is just possible that you may not know that Canada is rich in national parks and yet these parks are your parks and all the wealth of beauty and opportunity for enjoyment which they offer are yours by right of heritage because you are a Canadian.  National Parks exist for the people.  They are the people's share of the natural beauty of mountain, lake, and stream." 

J.B. Harkin, Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather from the Canadian National Parks, 1914Cover of "Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather," 1914 / Couverture de « Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather », 1914 

So wrote Commissioner J.B. Harkin in his first promotional tourist brochure for the new Dominion Parks Branch.  As a young commissioner excited by the potential of what would become, a century later, a world-renowned national system of protected parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas, Harkin faced his first challenge: attracting visitors and raising awareness of his conservation efforts. Harkin solved this by touching the romantic hearts of the world, appealing travellers to visit national parks with unprecedented success. This is the story of a civil servant who helped shape Canada's identity  through its landscape and history.

The Dominion Parks Act

A century ago, on May 19, 1911, Canada's national parks system was officially created under the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act.  Protected lands were set aside in the Rocky Mountains in 1885, but they had been administered under regulations that lacked strength to protect their natural and cultural heritage.  A new Act of Parliament was necessary to truly save from harm the Dominion's special places.

In the early 20th century, a growing conservation movement and a  growing tourism industry in Canada provoked the federal government to act.  In 1908, the federal government had decided that parks would be administered centrally, placing them under the care of the Forest Branch of the Department of the Interior.  Three years later, legislative changes clarified federal rules for forestry management and tourism with the existing Rocky Mountain parks.  New legislation was introduced in the House of Commons on January 1911, went through final reading in April 1911, and received Royal Assent on May 19, 1911.

The Dominon Forest Reserves and Parks Act defined parks as designated areas surrounded by forest reserves that served as buffer zones.  Definitions of a "park" and "reserve" were very different a century ago than they are today.  A park, today understood as a protected area, was considered a place for potential development in balance with protecting spots of natural beauty.  A reserve, considered today as an undeveloped place, was then a place rich in commercial potential.   Existing parks - Glacier, Yoho, Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, and Elk Island - were reduced in size due to the creation of the forest reserves under the new Act.  Yet, some early challenges were overcome with the separation of reserves and parks. Under the new Act, a commissioner who would bring greater stewardship to these special places was needed.

The New Parks Branch

James B. Harkin, LAC / James B. Harkin, BACBy September 1911, the new Dominion Parks Branch offices opened in the Birks Building on Sparks Street in downtown Ottawa.  It had seven employees, a budget of $200,000, and very little direction on how to administer or promote the National Parks.  James B. Harkin led the young Branch as commissioner.  In the 1890s, Harkin had been a successful journalist. In 1901 he was appointed to work in the Department of the Interior.  With strong and progressive views on environmental preservation, Harkin was a natural choice for the new position at the Parks Branch.

Harkin's talents as a communicator soon gave the Parks Branch's role more focus.  He was instrumental in persuading the federal government that national parks were in need of better protection.  Amendments to the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act in 1913 allowed for the national parks to be under the sole control of the parks commissioner; new national parks that weren't in forest reserves could now be created and existing national parks could be expanded.

Defining Protected Areas:

Harkin needed to now encourage Canadians to visit and appreciate their parks. During the First World War, Harkin travelled giving speeches, writing columns, and with the help of his staff, produced inspiring annual reports filled with photographs.  Harkin envisioned the national parks system consisting of Waterton Lakes, 1926 / Lacs-Waterton, 1926"Scenic Parks" - devoted to the preservation of scenic beauty for humans; "Animal Parks" - devoted to the preservation of space for flora and fauna; and "Historic Parks", which would be devoted to the preservation "of events and places of historic importance". 

In time, thirteen new national parks dedicated to protecting scenery and wildlife were created between 1914 and 1930. Harkin assisted in protecting historic places, beginning with Fort Howe in 1914, Fort Anne in 1917, and Fort Prince of Wales in 1922. In 1919, the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was established by the federal government.   While Harkin's commitment to the importance of protecting special places in Canada is felt in his brochures, he remained preoccupied by the commercial value of the national parks - in particular the parks' tourism potential.

Romancing the Parks: Mabel Williams' pen

Entries to national parks were at 100,000 in 1920. For Harkin, this number was inadequate. He needed to improve the promotion of the parks. To do this, he chose to produce travel books to highlight the wonders of the parks and historic sites.  He sent his exceptional secretary Mabel Williams to travel the national parks and write about them.  Through the Heart of the Rockies and Selkirks: Canada's National Parks (1921) was the first publication written by Williams.  The success of this publication led to more travels by Williams to mountain national parks and the publication of more guides through the 1920s.  The books ranged in length from 40 to 175 pages and were all free. Guides included: The Banff-Windermere Highway, Waterton Lakes National Park, Kootenay National Park and the Banff-Windermere Highway, Jasper National Park, Prince Albert National Park, Jasper Trails, and The Kicking Horse Trail.Mabel Williams, c. 1898, LAC / Mabel Williams, c. 1898, BAC

These guides were more than effective advertising; they captured the lure of Canada's wilderness. Williams' romantic style appealed to readers who were increasingly forming a common national identity rooted in the woods and lakes of Canada's wilds.  She extolled the beauty of the national parks' wild open spaces.  She began each chapter with a quotation from a famous writer - Walt Whitman, John Ruskin  and Pauline Johnson were favourites. She would then relate their words to the beauty, landscape and imagery of the parks. 

Stories appropriated from First Nations people added a touch of timelessness to the cultural history of the parks. She often remarked that these places were supposedly avoided by First Nations, giving to readers an illusion that they would visit empty, untouched and unspoiled parks. By contrast, Williams promoted car travel within the parks.

This romantic appeal is evident in the Waterton Lakes National Park guide of 1926.  Williams writes that Greek god, Pan, could find solace in the park, away from "a civilization blatant with radio and jazz".  Williams promotes the park as a place where urban people can go to reinvigorate themselves.

Beauty and peace appear to have made it their dominion, and at its gateway those wretched Seven Devils of our modern life - the little demons of Fear, Worry, Over-Haste and Overwork, Indigestion, Unrest and Abysmal Boredom - undoubtedly fold their black wings and steal silently back to the abodes man has created for them in what he calls civilization.

She also writes of memorable experiences, an important quality the Parks Branch sought for its visitors.

National parks guidebooks were more than simply brochures; they were well designed travel books for the serious adventurer. They were treasured for their quality. Leather covers, gilt lettering and clear design, filled with spectacular photographs of landscapes, wildlife, travellers riding horseback and motor cars on winding roads were kept and collected by park visitors. They were practical pocket guides for a traveller, with information on the cost of staying at park lodges, where to fill up your car or find the nearest telephone.  Each guidebook had an easy-to-read fold-out map with trails, townsites and camping marked along the major routes through the park.

Naturally, the guidebooks were a huge success.  Attendance climbed from 100,000 in 1921 to 250,000 in 1925 to 550,000 in 1928. Consequently, the Parks Branch increased in size and Williams was promoted to a manager overseeing twenty-five employees.  In an era before television or the internet, the Dominion Parks' growing publicity division promoted the national parks through public lectures, slide presentations, radio and motion pictures, in addition to re-issues of its The Rockies, 1921 / Les montagnes rocheuses, 1921guidebooks.

Echoing Harkin's Dream

The hard work of Harkin, Williams and others in the Parks Branch during the first twenty years eventually resulted in an historic piece of legislation, the Canada National Parks Act , being passed by Parliament in 1930, thus further strengthening Canada's resolve to protect its natural and cultural heritage.  This Act clarified the role of the Parks Branch, giving it greater authority to set aside and administer lands as national historic sites, and confirming that these places were "for the people", and were "national" and "Canadian" in scope.

Perhaps Harkin's dream is best heard through the words of a guidebook,

the dreamer lives forever...out of the dreams of a few far-visioned men have come the National Parks...Is there not room to believe [that parks] may in the end prove for all people to be roads back to a healthier and fuller contact with nature, to a wider and deeper love of country and a richer and more joyous life?

A century later, these lines continue to reflect the Parks Canada values and the unique experiences visitors have in our national parks.  Now, more than ever before, Canada's National Parks, National Historic Sites, and National Marine Conservation Areas are places of refuge and provide sanctuary from overpowering urban life. They continue to define who we are as Canadians and help us to keep on dreaming of new experiences and connections with our land, our shared history and our waters.

Reference Material:

Print Resources:

Hart, E.J.  J. B. Harkin: Father of Canada's National Parks.  University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, 2010.

Lothian, W.F.  A Brief History of Canada's National Parks.  Minister of Supply and Services, Minister of the Environment, Ottawa , 1987.

Lothian, W.F. A History of Canada's National Parks, Vols. 1-4.  Parks Canada, Ottawa, 1976.

MacEachern, Alan.  "M.B. Williams and the Early Years of Parks Canada", A Century of Parks Canada 1911-2011.  Ed. Claire Elizabeth Campbell, University of Calgary Press, 2011

Sandlos, John.  "Nature's Playgrounds: The Parks Branch and Tourism Promotion in the National Parks, 1911-1929." A Century of Parks Canada 1911-2011.  Ed. Claire Elizabeth Campbell, University of Calgary Press, 2011

Taylor, C.J. Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites.  Mcgill-Queen's University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 1990.

Additional Primary Resources (Available at Canadian Heritage, Knowledge Centre, Library Services
15 Eddy Street - 2nd floor, Gatineau, Quebec):

Harkin, J.B.  Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather: A Souvenir from the Dominion Parks Branch of the Department of the Interior, Ottawa, Canada.  1914.

Williams, M.B. Through the Heart of the Rockies and Selkirks, Canada's National Parks.  Minister of the Interior, 1921.

Williams, M.B. Waterton Lakes Park.  Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 1926.

Williams, M.B.  Jasper National Park.  F.A. Acland, King's Printer, Ottawa, 1928.

Williams, M.B.  Jasper Trails.  Department of the Interior, Ottawa,  1930.

Williams, M.B. Kootenay National Park and the Banff-Windermere Highway.  Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 1930.

Archival Resources (Library and Archives Canada):

M.B. Williams

James Bernard Harkin:

  1. Memoranda and Notes: http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=117179&rec_nbr_list=117179,117178
  2. Correspondence: http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=117178&rec_nbr_list=117179,117178

Canadian Parks Service

Historic Sites and Monuments Board

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