Reviewed by Gerald Killan (King's University College at The University of Western Ontario)
Published on H-Canada (March, 2011)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth (King's University College, UWO)
Hero or Antagonist? James B. Harkin, Canada’s First Commissioner of National Parks
The historiographical debate over the importance of James Bernard Harkin (1875-1955), the first commissioner of Dominion Parks from 1911 to 1936, has come full circle with the publication of E. J. (Ted) Hart’s J. B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. Prior to the 1980s, Harkin was generally portrayed as a visionary conservationist, the creator of Canada’s national parks system. This school of thought reached its zenith in Janet Foster’s Working for Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada (1978), which asserted that Harkin was fifty years ahead of his time, a leader with “a clear and unfailing vision of what wilderness, parks and wildlife signified for the Canadian people in terms of both aesthetic and economic importance.” Foster included Harkin among a small group of public servants whom she credits with driving the wildlife protectionist impulse in Canada in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Since the 1970s, historians have not been so complimentary in their assessment of Harkin. Leslie Bella began the assault in Parks for Profit (1987) and excoriated Harkin for entrenching autotourism as the primary purpose of the national parks at the expense of the protectionist imperative. More recently, Canadian national park and environmental historians have also pushed Harkin off his pedestal. For example, in Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (2007), John Sandlos cast a critical eye on Foster’s small group of wildlife preservationists, prompting Hart to bemoan that the “pantheon of enlightened Canadian wildlife conservationists” as described by Janet Foster are now viewed by Sandlos as “a misanthropic group of bureaucrats intent on dispossessing native peoples in pursuit of a wildlife-based northern economy” (p. xix).
The most pointed critique of Harkin is to be found in the second chapter of Alan MacEachern’s Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (2001). MacEachern chides previous writers for drawing unsubstantiated conclusions about Commissioner Harkin, and for accepting “uncritically that Harkin wrote all that is credited to him; that his conservationist sentiments are sincere but his economic justifications are strategic; and that what he writes is honest and unmotivated and thus correlates exactly with how he would behave.” It is by presenting Harkin as “the focus of all the Parks Branch’s successes that earlier writers have made him ahead of his time rather than a product of it.” In MacEachern’s view, Harkin knew nothing about parks when he assumed the position of commissioner and perforce had to rely on his staff to draft policy. In short, Harkin was a mere “conduit for the philosophy germinating within the Branch.”
These revisionist interpretations do not resonate well with Hart, a historian and archivist of Canada’s mountain national parks since the 1970s, and currently director emeritus and head archivist at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. He decries the fact that Harkin is known to few Canadians, and is now being deposed as a protagonist in the national parks story. In this biography, Hart aims to revise the revisionists and to demonstrate that Harkin was indeed a heroic figure who “not only participated in but also led some of the most important conservation initiatives in Canadian history.” He was a leader of “national vision,” worthy of the sobriquet “father of Canada’s National Parks.” Hart ultimately concludes that “having set out to reveal a great builder and administrator of Canada’s national parks system and a champion for its wildlife, I instead discovered a great Canadian” (pp. xxi-xxii).
To Hart’s credit, this biography does provide a more informed, well-documented picture of Harkin’s place in the Canadian conservation story. It adds considerable insight into the evolution of Harkin’s ideas on parks and wildlife protection, his motivations and methods as a leader, and his accomplishments as national parks commissioner. Hart also provides throughout the biography a splendid analytical and historiographical framework within which he synthesizes and builds on the findings and interpretations of previous historians. For me, though, the one grating element of this book, is the author’s decision to embrace the “great man theory” of historical writing.
In taking on this biography, Hart, like the historians who preceded him, faced a formidable obstacle. Harkin left no personal papers shedding light on his private life and thoughts. Consequently, this book is a biography of Harkin as public servant, and from that perspective, it is a very good one. Hart has scoured the voluminous Dominion Parks Branch files (RG-84 Library and Archives Canada); all Department of Interior files relating to parks branch activities; the relevant prime ministers’ papers; the major Alberta archives possessing material on the western parks; and the papers of Mabel Williams (a long-standing parks branch employee during Harkin’s tenure), collected by Robin Winks and now housed in the Whyte Museum. Based on this extensive research, Hart has convincingly answered many of the criticisms made by the revisionists against Harkin. No one will likely conclude Harkin was ahead of his time after reading this biography--he is clearly presented as a product of it. Nor will anyone dismiss Harkin as a mere “conduit” of the ideas of others in his branch.
This biography begins with an outstanding historiographical introduction, but promptly falters in chapter 1. Only five pages are devoted to the first seventeen years of Harkin’s life--and two of these pages cover what he might have learned in a hypothetical conversation around the kitchen table with his journalist brother William about the founding of Rocky Mountains Park in 1887. Hart essentially throws in the towel on Harkin’s formative years and concludes that they are “shrouded in time” (p. 1). This is unfortunate. A lot more could have been done to contextualize Harkin’s early years and to provide some possible insights into what might have shaped his attitudes, values, and biases. What was it like growing up in eastern Ontario, the son of an Irish Protestant father (a McGill-trained physician and conservative MLA [member of the Legislative Assembly] for Prescott who died in 1881) and a Scots Catholic mother? How did the family negotiate the religious upbringing of the five children? Harkin’s father died when he was six; his devoutly Catholic mother must have had a significant influence on his thinking; so, too, his oldest brother who was a priest. His only sister was also devoutly Catholic, and Harkin provided for both his mother and sister for the rest of their lives. What elements of Catholic teaching stuck and possibly shaped his mature worldview? As an adult, Harkin is said to have been little motivated by religious concerns? Was this really the case? Hart explains that Harkin was a spiritual man who embraced transcendentalism in his mid-thirties after reading the likes of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and came to equate nature with God. Is there a link here to his Roman Catholic upbringing? Where did Harkin go to elementary school (Catholic or public system) and what might he have learned? Harkin spent his high school years in Marquette, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with his physician brother’s family, but Hart tells the reader nothing about this period. Where did Harkin attend high school in Marquette? Did he attend church? What might he have experienced as a teenager in this remote place? Might he have experienced the awesome, sublime power of Lake Superior or the surrounding wilderness?
The biography picks up steam when at age seventeen, Harkin moved to Montreal to become a cub reporter for the Montreal Herald (1892), and later a journalist for the Ottawa Journal where he assumed the position of city editor with a seat in the parliamentary press gallery. At this point, Hart begins to speculate effectively about what might have shaped the thinking of the young man as he gained important insights into the workings of government and the political issues of the day, particularly conservation related matters. In 1901, Harkin was appointed political secretary to Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton, became his private secretary in 1902, and subsequently stayed in that position for Sifton’s successor, Frank Oliver. For a decade, Harkin honed his skills as a writer and political publicist doing media and communications work for Sifton and Oliver, and working effectively behind the scenes to employ “their power and influence to achieve their partisan ends” (p. 36). This experience, as Hart explains, was the perfect preparation for becoming commissioner of the new Dominion Parks Branch in 1911.
Harkin was thirty-six years old in 1911, and it is only at this stage of his subject’s life that Hart obtained access to documentation that allows him to chronicle Harkin’s thinking on parks and wildlife conservation. Initially, Commissioner Harkin had very limited knowledge about national parks, the ideals and philosophy behind them, or the policies required to develop them. He possessed no vision for his branch--it would take a few years to develop, and elements of his vision evolved significantly over time. Hart details how Harkin first immersed himself in American sources related to parks, wildlife, and tourism, and how he began sharing information with his counterparts to the South--a hallmark of his career. He also exploited the work of experts on parks, tourism, and outdoor recreation from every available source. His first visit to Canada’s western parks and reserves occurred in 1912, and included a sojourn with the Alpine Club of Canada’s Vermilion Pass Camp, an experience that stimulated in him a deeper appreciation of the positive effects of wilderness. Hart emphasizes, however, that Harkin’s wilderness thought was not experience based--the commissioner’s outdoor recreation activities were largely limited to the golf links. What informed his thinking on the positive effects of wilderness were the writings of people like John Muir and Thoreau. Through his annual reports, he “left no stone unturned” and quoted experts on any and all of the values of parks--from the commercial to the human benefits of wilderness and outdoor recreation, to the playground movement, to the patriotic, physical fitness and character building notions of such worthies as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Baden-Powell. From his extensive research and reading, the new commissioner quickly ascertained the direction his branch needed to go. Hart is convincing that Harkin was in charge and the paramount influence in the branch. He was a workaholic who insisted on central authority, was autocratic at times, and a micro-manager at others; his leadership style contributed to “frequent bouts of stress-related illness” and possibly depression (p. 342). Still, he did not work alone. He incorporated “the views of subordinates and the knowledge they brought to the task, he also exhibited a keen ability to seek out opinions and information from his many peers and a variety of other sources and synthesize it into a coherent policy before selling it to his superiors and politicians. Without these skills,” Hart emphasizes, “Canada’s national park system would not have become what it is today” (p. 180). This theme is persuasively developed.
From the outset, Harkin understood that if his branch was to flourish within the Department of Interior and its competing branches, then a pragmatic approach was essential to acquire political and public financial support for park development. Tourism, he soon concluded, would be the means to sustain and expand the parks system. His American counterparts, also driven by economic imperatives, convinced him of this. Harkin believed that Canada, with its superior scenery, could well compete with the United States National Parks for the North American and European tourist trade. By 1912, he had linked “the economic value of tourism with the importance of the automobile” (p. 69). To make Canadian parks accessible both to domestic and American tourists, roads were essential. Harkin and his deputy commissioner, Frank Williamson, understood that the future of parks depended on generating autotourism revenues; this was their essential argument for acquiring increased appropriations from the deputy ministers and the politicians. Harkin and Williamson became influential proponents of massive road projects, like the Edmonton-Jasper-Banff Highway and the TransCanada Highway. To historians like Bella who have criticized Harkin’s assiduous promotion of autotourism, Hart responds that these scholars have overlooked “the fact that Harkin’s branch was part of the Department of the Interior, the whole ‘raison d’etre’ of which was to capitalize on the resources of western Canada for the good of the nation, an imperative that not even parks could escape” (p. 77). If Harkin had relied purely on a philosophical preservationist rationale for park development akin to that of Muir, argues Hart, he would have failed miserably to advance his branch’s agenda.
With roads and autotourists, of course, came the demand for accommodation--townsites, hotels, cottages, and campgrounds--as well as other tourist amenities, such as golf courses. Motivated by the link between the “play spirit that he believed so essential to mankind’s well-being,” and his own love of the game, Harkin, together with his deputy minister, William W. Cory, championed the policy that high-end golf courses were a required tourist offering (p. 134). This policy had profound consequences for the future of Canada’s national parks. Modern-day environmentalists whose primary concern is to maintain the ecological integrity of national parks, and who consider golf courses an egregious nonconforming use, do not thank Harkin for this development.
In the post-World War One reconstruction period, autotourism loomed even larger in Harkin’s agenda. Hart portrays Harkin sympathetically through the lens of the “great Canadian,” the heroic leader promoting tourism and roads as “an end in itself for the good of Canada.” Harkin declared in 1921 that “the Canadian National Parks may be said to be in the business of selling scenery” (p. 210). By 1923, the Banff-Windermere Road was completed, the first motorway across the central Rockies, providing access to four million American autotourists. Harkin claimed in internal memos and his annual report in 1919 that autotourism and national parks could actually attract sufficient tourist revenues to offset Canada’s serious balance of payments deficit with the United States. As park visitation increased with road accessibility, and thousands of Canadians and Americans of more modest means replaced the earlier wealthy park visitor demographic, Hart further extols Harkin’s contributions to the country. “Having set out in 1919 to accomplish economic goals for Canada, by 1925 Harkin found himself in the happy position of also achieving unforeseen humanitarian and social benefits in the national parks in line with his long-held aspirations” (p. 239). Such praise will strike some readers as exaggerated.
The Great Depression gave another enormous boost to Harkin’s autotourism agenda as some renowned trunk roads were constructed as relief projects. The Big Bend project was completed during the 1930s, the last link in the western Canadian portion of the TransCanada Highway, connecting five mountain national parks. Similarly, the Jasper-Banff Highway, today the Icefields Parkway, was constructed through some of the most magnificent mountain landscapes anywhere, all within the Canadian Rockies Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, recognized by UNESCO in 1984 for its outstanding natural beauty. Another long-anticipated highway was completed (1931-36) linking Glacier National Park in the United States with the contiguous Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, in time for both parks to be dedicated as an International Peace Park on July 4, 1936--the first such trans-border park in the world. Harkin had supported the construction of this highway for years, and it helped him “to achieve one of his longest-standing goals--improving relations and tourism opportunities with the American parks system” (p. 411). These highways, and here Hart is not exaggerating, represent an important legacy of Commissioner Harkin and his branch.
If autotourism loomed large in Harkin’s thinking, another powerful stream of thought--protection of natural values and wildlife conservation--strengthened as time went on. This dual focus became known as the “double mandate”--the challenge of balancing both development and preservation. In 1914, Harkin was only vaguely aware of this concept. In a promotional pamphlet that he wrote entitled Just a Sprig of Mountain Heather (1914), described by Hart as “the first separate and distinct policy document on national parks publicly issued anywhere,” Harkin revealed how broad and profound his thinking on parks had become. In it he emphasized not only the economic value of parks but also the need to preserve “the natural heritage of beauty” of parks for the “benefit, advantage and enjoyment forever” of Canadians (p. 82). He even called for the creation of a system of different classes of parks (scenic, historic, wildlife sanctuaries, and what are now called “near-urban” recreational parks).
Hart recognizes that there was little indication in the pamphlet or Harkin’s earlier annual reports that he would emerge as a champion for either Canadian wildlife or the principle of “inviolability,” that is, protection of parks from major industrial development that could impair their “natural beauties and scenic wonders” (p. 86). Hart reveals that the commmissioner used the issue of wildlife conservation prior to 1915 more as a “bureaucratic weapon as much as a matter of philosophical conviction,” in his interdepartmental battle with the forestry branch (p. 106). It did not sit well with Harkin that the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act (1911) had placed the parks branch in a subservient position to forestry. The legislation established that no parks could be created unless they fell within forest reserves. Furthermore, when the parks branch was created in 1911, the boundaries of the Rocky Mountains, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes parks were reduced and areas once designated parkland became part of the forest reserves. Harkin set out to reverse this situation, and Hart thoroughly documents how the commissioner rallied authoritative voices (the Alpine Club of Canada, the Alberta Game Protection Association, the two new transcontinental railways being constructed through Jasper Park, the Forestry Committee of the Conservation Commission, and politicians like Richard B. Bennett) to the cause. Harkin effectively argued in the interdepartment war of memos “that where natural attractions are the greatest there one will be most likely to find game breeding grounds,” and by including those areas in parks, game protection would be most effectively advanced (p. 95). By 1915, this position won out, and “became the basis for a continuing shift of wildlife management away from Forestry to Parks, culminating in 1917 when, in conjunction with the passage of the new Migratory Birds Convention Act and an amendment to the Northwest Game Act concerning wildlife in the Northwest Territories, Harkin achieved his goal of receiving complete authority for game protection” (p. 103). The Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act was also amended in 1914 so that places noted for scenic features, historical or monumental grounds could be set aside in areas other than those of forest reserves. Language was also added that replaced the powers of the superintendent of forestry in parks with the commissioner of Dominion Parks. And the boundaries of Rocky Mountains, Waterton Lakes, and Jasper parks were expanded beyond their pre-1911 dimensions.
If Harkin began his tenure using wildlife conservation as a “bureaucratic weapon,” emphasizing economic values, and supporting traditional predator control policies in parks, his approach soon began to change. Hart argues that after 1914, the commissioner began to metamorphose into a strong conservationist. Three people--Maxwell Graham, head of the parks branch’s animal division; Ernest Thompson Seton, naturalist and popular author of animal stories; and particularly William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Association and author of Our Vanishing Wildlife: Its Extermination (1913)--are credited with shaping Harkin’s new perceptions of wildlife conservation. Hornaday’s idea of national parks as game sanctuaries, and his call for the creation of game sanctuaries as a distinct type of national park, were embraced by Commissioner Harkin. Thanks to the wildlife division of the parks branch headed by Graham, a wood bison preserve was established in 1922, as were three sanctuaries for pronghorn antelope in Alberta and Saskatchewan. When the branch was given responsibility for national and international wildlife protection in 1917, and a new migratory birds section was created in 1918 with ornithologist Hoyes Lloyd in charge, Hart claims it was Harkin’s vision for bird sanctuaries that drove Lloyd’s agenda. Hart acknowledges that Harkin and the branch were the beneficiaries of the remarkable earlier work of other scientists and naturalists in advocating for bird conservation, in short the people identified by Foster in Working for Wildlife. For example, Percy Taverner, ornithologist of the National Museum was a major force behind the establishment of sanctuaries at Perce Rock, Great Bird Rocks, and part of Bonaventure Island in 1919; he also influenced Harkin in the setting aside of Point Pelee on Lake Erie, Ontario, in 1918, the first national park based solely on bird protection.
By the mid-1920s, Harkin was reading studies on animal ecology and was beginning to understand the issue of animal population dynamics and the impact of predator elimination policies. Lloyd introduced him to the publications of American scientist Charles C. Adams, and Harkin even distributed Adams’s article, “The Conservation of Predatory Animals,” to his park superintendents. In Hart’s opinion this was “the starting point for a fundamental shift in branch wildlife policy” (p. 296). Harkin began to appreciate the importance of science and research to wildlife management in parks. Without scientific studies, he wrote in 1929, “‘game conservationists are largely groping in their search for ways and means for perpetuating wildlife’” (p. 459).
Hart presents Harkin as a transitional figure in the evolution of positive attitudes toward predators and the application of ecology to wildlife management. In 1928, the commissioner’s growing appreciation of the role of predators led him to order his wardens to stop trapping predators and selling their pelts (until then a significant income supplement for the wardens). The “No Traps, No Pelts” policy created a bitter rift between Harkin and the wildlife division on the one hand, and the park superintendents and wardens on the other, a clash that lasted until Harkin retired. Hart challenges MacEachern’s portrayal of Harkin in these years as being intolerant of predators and not much of a force in support of the scientists’ position. On the contrary, Hart retorts, Harkin consistently supported his wildlife division, understood the necessity of scientific research in game preservation, and oversaw “important but largely unseen” ecological research projects in fish habitat and distribution, as well as ornithology (p. 475). If his willingness to protect predators had limits, he was only reflecting the current state of ecological science. Hart agrees with American environmental historian Thomas R. Dunlap that Harkin’s writings contained a “confusing mixture” of protection and natural balance and that he possessed “‘no certain model.’” This is not surprising given that the animal ecologists of the day had not yet developed their science to the point they were calling for absolute protection for predators. Hart could have stopped there; instead he concludes that the commissioner’s work was of enormous importance to developments a decade or more into the future. “If Harkin had wavered in support of the role of science and research under Parks administration,” writes Hart, “the whole subsequent story of Canadian wildlife conservation might have been different.... Giving into public pressure, which for many years would remain averse to the acceptance of the predatory role, would likely have set back the work of the Wildlife Division, and it may well have affected the new role for wildlife management that emerged with creation of the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1947” (p. 476). Again, some will find this questionable, unsubstantiated, and symptomatic of Hart’s determination to present Harkin as a “great Canadian.”
To be fair, Hart does acknowledge that Harkin suffered failures. The commissioner’s decisions to address the population explosion of plains bison in Buffalo National Park was a debacle. He became an early advocate and the foremost apologist for the shipment of some 6,673 plains bison from 1924 to 1928 to Wood Buffalo National Park (established in 1922 on the Northwest Territories-Alberta boundary). The transfer occurred despite the strong objections of Lloyd and the wildlife division who opposed the policy for compelling scientific reasons--the cross-breeding of two distinct species of bison and the fact it was bad epidemiology to send diseased bison known to carry tuberculosis into a healthy population of animals. Hart claims that Harkin’s superiors forced his hand, but this is not clearly documented. In any event, why did Harkin not assert himself more vigorously or rally support as he did on other occasions? As for all the environmental historians who have justifiably criticized the bison transfer, Hart again rises to the defense of his “great Canadian” even to the point of using the first person in the narrative: “I also believe,” Hart argues, “some have failed to understand the influences Harkin was working under that tempered his actions” (p. 292). Hart cites the work of Sandlos to make the case that Harkin was only following the practices of the time. “‘The principles behind the transfer proposal,’” wrote Sandlos, “‘were entirely consistent with the contradictory amalgamation of preservationist sentiment and quasi-agricultural approaches to wildlife management that dominated Canada’s conservation bureaucracy during the 1920s.’” Beyond that, Harkin claimed that his policy was based on “commercial necessity,” to provide bison as “a guaranteed food and fur supply for both natives and white explorers in the North.” “Too often,” adds Hart, “those examining Harkin have seen his tourism and conservation activities in the 1920s to be at odds, while in reality they were largely carried out toward what he saw as the same end--the well being of the nation” (p. 293). This assertion will strike some readers as verging on sophistry. Hart has convincingly shown that Harkin did remarkable work; he kept abreast of trends in the broader North American wildlife movement, but he occasionally bungled. There is no need for Hart to defend his every action, or present the commissioner at every opportunity as a nation-building hero. If there is one major weakness in this otherwise solid book, this is it.
Hart does a splendid job of tracing the second element of Harkin’s protectionist agenda--his advancement of the principle of inviolability for national parks. Just as Graham, Seton, and Hornaday shaped Harkin’s commitment to wildlife conservation, and Lloyd and Adams his interest in animal ecology and progressive predator policies, it was Interior Minister Arthur Meighen who, in 1919, triggered the commissioner’s determination to embrace the principle of inviolability. Meighen “initiated a fundamental policy shift with respect to resource extraction” by prohibiting further speculative mining or oil exploration in mountain national parks (p. 246). Soon after, Harkin began to speak out about the need to protect the natural, recreational, and aesthetic values of parks from the resource developers, a call prompted by the proposed project for a dam and reservoir along the international border in Waterton Lakes Park for irrigation purposes in the Lethbridge area. Fortunately, the Waterton Lakes dam project was blocked in 1921 by the International Joint Commission, thanks largely to the lobbying of the National Parks Association in the United States.
Harkin lamented that no organized opposition similar to the National Parks Association or the Sierra Club yet existed in Canada. He needed such allies to combat other major water projects being contemplated in Rocky Mountains Park at the Lake Minnewanka outlet and the Spray Lakes by the Calgary Power Company. The value of Harkin’s early experience with Sifton and Oliver prior to 1911 is effectively illustrated in the battle with Calgary Power and its powerful supporters. Hart reveals that Harkin was a major behind-the-scenes figure in the creation of the Canadian National Parks Association (CNPA) in 1923 through his connection with Arthur Wheeler and the Alpine Club of Canada which opposed all water development projects in the parks. The issues were battled out publicly in the Calgary and Alberta press. In 1923 at the Alpine Club camp in the Larch Valley, a meeting attended by Harkin, the CNPA was created. “The national voice that Harkin had longed for,” writes Hart, “was now a reality, its objects encapsulating his own philosophy on park conservation and the principle of inviolability” (p. 269). The CNPA soon launched an impressive “Hands Off Our National Parks” campaign, and thereafter was of enormous importance in the ongoing effort during the 1920s to publicize the importance of inviolability and to oppose the Calgary Power Company’s plans for dam projects at Lake Minnewanka and the Spray Lakes.
Harkin’s assiduous and successful efforts in this period to remove the restrictions on parks under the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act and to achieve a dedicated National Parks Act in 1930 are thoroughly documented. Hart lays out the evidence--a myriad of memos, reports, and letters written by Harkin--revealing the commissioner as being “tenacious in the face of what became a protracted struggle, masterfully manipulating the bureaucracy and public opinion in moving forward his message of inviolability and the need for new legislation to protect Canadian parks” (p. 304). By 1923 Harkin had drafted legislation that became the template for the 1930 National Parks Act--the draft was “a fully developed position, touching on all aspects of conservation, development, and administration” (p. 313).
As early as 1922, Harkin unsuccessfully attempted to trump Calgary Power and its supporters by amending the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act to give Parliament the decision-making authority over development projects in parks. As it happened, the issue became enmeshed in the negotiations to transfer natural resources to the western provinces. Harkin, backed by the CNPA, argued strenuously during these negotiations that national parks should remain under federal control as in the United States. In 1926, Harkin’s position was embedded in the final version of the transfer agreement. Inviolability was maintained because decisions over the administration of resources and controls of park lands were to remain in dominion hands subject only to the decision of Parliament. Harkin’s efforts to entrench inviolability in legislation, and to ensure that the administration, resources, and control of land in parks were subject only to the power of Parliament, culminated successfully in the National Parks Act (1930). Ironically, achieving inviolability required compromise. In the face of the powerful Calgary Power Company and the broad public support it enjoyed in Alberta in favor of irrigation and hydroelectric developments, a position supported by Alberta Premier J. E. Brownlee, Harkin perforce agreed to revise the boundaries of Rocky Mountains Park to exclude the Spray Lakes, Kananaskis, Canmore, and Exshaw townsites. As “an art of the possible” conservationist, Harkin believed this concession was a price worth paying to obtain a separate national parks act. That legislation contained a dedication clause said to be “Harkin’s most important contribution to Canadian parks conservation” (p. 371). It read: “The Parks are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment and such Parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (p. 370).
The passage of the National Parks Act in 1930 stands out as the zenith of Commissioner Harkin’s career. That same year, the imperious R. B. Bennett became prime minister, a Calgary lawyer-politician with close connections to the Calgary Power Company. Bennett, whose constituency included Banff National Park, was openly hostile to Harkin for his years of opposition to Calgary Power’s development plans at Lake Minnewanka and Spray Lakes. Long-time parks branch employee and historian, Fergus Lothian, claimed that the prime minister frequently telephoned Harkin to ask for his resignation. Why Bennett could not get rid of Harkin, had he so desired, is mystifying. In any case, Bennett made Harkin’s last years as commissioner extremely stressful. The prime minister curtailed Harkin’s control of the parks agenda by administratively bypassing him and dealing directly with Chief Engineer James Wardle to carry out relief works in the western parks. Wardle, based in Banff, became the de facto western parks commissioner. He was eventually promoted by Bennett to the position of deputy minister of the Department of Interior in 1935. Fortunately, Wardle had been Harkin’s protégé in his early career, and despite the devolution of central control, remained a “trusted and valuable confidant” of the commissioner (p. 420). The relief works were efficiently completed resulting in an exceptionally productive period for parks infrastructure.
Another key theme in Harkin’s last decade, and one central to Hart’s thesis that Harkin is deserving of the nickname “father of Canada’s National Parks,” is the building of an impressive system of parks, sanctuaries, and historic sites encompassing every province. In 1911, Harkin’s new parks branch began with five established mountain parks/reserves in British Columbia and Alberta--Rocky Mountains, Lake Louise (later Jasper), Glacier, Yoho, and Waterton Lakes--as well as two animal reserves (Elk Island and Buffalo National Park), and the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River. By 1936, two more parks--Mount Revelstoke (1914) and Kootenay (1922)--had been set aside in British Columbia, Wood Buffalo (1922) in Alberta, Prince Albert (1927) in Saskatchewan, Riding Mountain (1929) in Manitoba, Point Pelee (1918) and Georgian Bay Islands (1929) in Ontario, Cape Breton Highlands (1936) in Nova Scotia, and plans for Prince Edward Island National Park were well advanced for opening in 1937. In addition to animal and bird sanctuaries, a fledgling system of national historic sites (particularly focused on the preservation and reconstruction of military sites) had been developed under the aegis of the historic sites division established in 1922, and a nationwide site commemoration program was developed by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Ironically, Hart’s detailed narrative of Commissioner Harkin’s role in advancing the vision of a national park in every province based on a “national standard” for parkland selection, does not evoke an image of Harkin as heroic “great Canadian.” Instead, Harkin emerges from the pages as an exemplary public servant who necessarily was often forced to adapt to political and popular pressures. As often as not, he reacted to circumstances and pressures beyond his control, rather than leading according to plan. Harkin’s vision of a park in every province was cloudy. The Province of Quebec lacked a national park, but no explanation is given to explain Quebec’s opposition to the national park idea, or if Harkin engaged in any discussions on the matter with officials in that province. It appears that Harkin was also slow to shift from the notion of national parks having to measure up to the sublime landscapes of the first mountain parks. In 1926, Harkin informed Deputy Minister William Cory that “‘there should be at least one large National park in each Province, if at all possible,’” that protected landscapes of “‘supreme quality’” (p. 349). A year later, Harkin confessed that he doubted that any of the eastern provinces had Crown lands “outstanding in their scenic and recreational values” suitable for designation as national parks. “‘Prince Edward Island has not,’” he wrote. “‘I think it is almost equally true with respect to Nova Scotia’” (p. 421).
Given Hart’s thesis, it may come as a surprise to readers that Commissioner Harkin played a marginal and reluctant role in the establishment of several major parks. Had it not been for the prime minister, W. L. Mackenzie King, Prince Albert National Park would not have been set aside in 1927. Elected in the riding of Prince Albert in 1926 following his defeat in North York in the federal election the year before, King promised his constituents a national park during the by-election. Harkin had no choice but to act on this promise, but in so doing, his opinions mattered not a whit, even his views on the suitability of the park’s location and its name were ignored. Significantly, he experienced an “epiphany” after first visiting the new park in August 1927. The outpouring of provincial pride and public enthusiasm for Prince Albert National Park profoundly moved him and converted him to its cause despite the fact that the site did not meet his “national standard” for a national park (p. 353). Hart provides a positive spin to the episode: “it illustrates that in his [Harkin’s] efforts to make national parks relevant to Canadians, he had been so successful that they had now become instruments of public policy and even political expediency” (p. 354). Shortly after, compelling political and public demands for a national park in Manitoba resulted in the creation of Riding Mountain National Park in 1929. Here, too, decisions (including the area selected for the park) were influenced not by Harkin but by the Manitoba legislature, Premier John Bracken and Deputy Minister Cory. In the story behind the establishment of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 1936, the first real national park set aside in the Maritimes, again, Harkin does not stand out as the driver behind its creation. The site Harkin supported for a park in Nova Scotia was located in the Bras d’Or area of the province, not the Cape Breton site selected by Minister of the Interior Thomas Crerar.
All of this suggests that Harkin’s genius was in his ability to adapt to political, social, and economic circumstances of the day. If “politics is the art of the possible,” as Otto Von Bismarck claimed, then Harkin stands out as one of the best “art of the possible” public servants since Confederation. How he survived Bennett and even managed to advance the park agenda in the 1930s is remarkable. In the end, Harkin got results. He oversaw and shaped Canada’s system of national parks during his twenty-five-year tenure. Hart gets it right when he remakes the case for recognizing Harkin as the “father of Canada’s National Parks.” Does this qualify Harkin to be characterized as a hero, as a “great Canadian”? Not all readers will be convinced. All the same, Hart’s “great man” approach does not detract from the conclusion that this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Canada’s national parklands.
It is regrettable to end on a negative note. There is not a single map in this book. Few will be the readers who do not query why the author or his editors failed to include maps showing the location of the parks, the growth of the system over time, the location of the major autourism roads that figure so prominently in the narrative, the animal sanctuaries and historic sites, and a map of Rocky Mountains (Banff) National Park showing the locations of the Lake Minnewanka and Spray Lakes controversies.
. Janet Foster, Working for Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 13.
. Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections, National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 27-29.
. Hart is echoing the conclusion of Gavin Henderson, “The Father of Canadian National Parks,” Borealis (Fall 1994): 30-31.
. Charles C. Adams, “The Conservation of Predatory Animals,” Journal of Mammalogy 6, no. 2 (February 1925): 83-96.
. Alan MacEachern, “Rationality and Rationalization in Canadian National Park Predator Policy,” in Consuming Canada: Readings in Environmental History, ed. Chad and Pam Gaffield (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1995), 199, 205.
. Thomas R. Dunlap, “Ecology, Nature and Canadian National Parks Policy: Wolves, Elk and Bison as a Case Study,” in To See Ourselves/Save Ourselves: Ecology and Culture in Canada, ed. Association for Canadian Studies (Montreal: Association of Canadian Studies, 1991), 143-144.
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Gerald Killan. Review of Hart, E. J. (Ted), J. B. Harkin: Father of Canada's National Parks.
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