I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here. 

A Century of Parks Canada: 1911-2011

Edited by Claire Elizabeth Campbell

Many commemorative histories are overtly laudatory in tone and tend to propagate the traditional myths surrounding the institution, individual, or myth. A Century of Parks Canada: 1911-2011 is not your typical commemorative collection. The essays found within openly refute the popular belief that Canada National Parks were founded for purely preservationists reasons and that the land that that they encapsulate is pristine wilderness. Instead, the authors demonstrate how national parks are the physical records of a century of human initiative and fabrication. Like Paul Kopas, the essays in A Century of Parks Canada support the idea that the meaning behind the national parks has shifted and evolved throughout the years in order to imitate the particular currents of thought at any given time. However, unlike Kopas, the authors reject the idea that these eras can be neatly divided between public and private intervention, and instead argue that these interactions were much more complicated and coexisted together.

The essays in A Century of Parks Canada illustrate the ways in which one can decipher the larger historical context by examining the events taking part in the parks in any given era. The authors highlight the diversity of viewpoints regarding National Parks and the ways in which Canada used the parks as staging grounds for social, political, and scientific agendas. Parks Canada has always had difficulty establishing a clear objective because it is forced to continually shift strides in order to balance its commitment to nature and to the Canadian populace. In “M.B. Williams and the Early Years of Parks Canada,” Alan MacEachern looks at the newly release papers of M.B. Williams, J.B. Harkins’ assistant. MacEachern states that the papers illustrate the growth of Harkin from novice to conservation expert, the process of which is used to heroicize Harkin in the eyes of the public. MacEachern is slightly skeptical of this superman image, however, as he points out that Harkin’s actions solidified the branch’s celebration of the automobile, which led to a great amount of environmental detriment, and their treatment of First Nations, which was typically characterized by disregard and removal tactics. John Sandlos is also skeptical of Harkin’s heroism. In “Nature’s Playgrounds: The Parks Branch and Tourism Promotion in the National Parks, 1911-1929,” he states that this heroism is rather ironic due to the fact that Harking promoted automobiles and the use of parks as playgrounds rather than centers of environmental preservation. The entrenchment of Parks Canada into the automobile culture ensured the further commoditization of nature. Sandlos argues that any visitor to a Canadian national park is a consumer of experience and is unable to experience the landscape without the film of commercialization. In “A Questionable Basis for Establishing a Major Park: Politics, Roads, and the Failure of a National Park in British Columbia’s Big Bend Country,” Ben Bradley further accentuates the relationship between roads and parks, and demonstrates how the failures of the system are just as illuminating as the success stories.

A major theme throughout the essays is the interaction between park and government officials with local citizens. In “’A Case of Special Privilege and Fancied Right’, The Shack Tent Controversty in Prince Albert National Park,” Bill Waiser argues that the presence of shack tents in Prince Albert demonstrates the power that local citizenry held during the 1960s in their ability to force the park service to twist to their demands, and challenges the wide held assumption that national parks are for the people, and thus are naturally devoid of private interest. In “Hunting, Timber Harvesting, and Precambrian Beauties,” Oliver Craig-Dupont shows how the government and park officials erased the human and industrial past of the La Mauricie National Park site by re-categorizing the region through the emphasis of its ecological features. Ronald Rudin paints a similar story of erasure and citizen reaction in the case of the Acadians and Kouchibouguac National Park. In “Archaeology in the Rocky Mountain National Parks,” E. Gwyn Langemann demonstrates how findings of human remains from thousands of years ago are proving that humans have had a prolonged impact on the environment. As a result ecologists have been forced to rethink their understandings of human’s role in ecological processes. Additionally, this discovery in addition to the increased involvement of aboriginals in park planning, as described in I.S. MacLaren’s article makes it far more difficult if not impossible for park officials to conveniently eradicate that which does not fit the traditional national park ideal.

Feature Photo: Des visiteurs à l’écloserie gouvernemental, au Jasper National Park, en Alberta, July 1953, Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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