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. 

J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks 

E.J. (Ted) Hart

In J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks, E.J. Hart states that the once idolized architect of Canada’s national park system has fallen into one of two fates in contemporary memory. The first fate is that of disappearance, many individuals today having no idea who J.B. Harkin was. Hart finds it hard to comprehend how such a pivotal figure in the establishment of Canadian ideals that are held so important today, such as tourism, conservation, recreation, historic site preservation could simply vanish from the record. The second fate is to be scrutinized by environmental historians who are intent in challenging the traditional narrative, and thus, not surprisingly, often conjure an ill-favorable view of the father of Canada’s national parks. This second fate is the more obscene of the two, according to Hart.

Hart served as the Director of the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, and as an archivist was often in close contact with government documents. Hart was increasingly surprised by how often he ran across Harkin in the documents he was examining, and how Harkin appeared to not only be a participant in government policy, but also the initiator and administrator of these policies. Hart was impressed by how pivotal Harkin’s involvement was in the 1930 National Parks Act. Familiar with Roderick Nash’s criticism of Harkin for having caused Canada to lag behind in wilderness preservation due to his obsession with profit and tourism, Hart began to seriously question this condemnation. Others such as Leslie Bella and Alan MacEachern also portrayed Harkin in a negative light, accusing him of being a scientific mouthpiece and an instigator of aboriginal removal from park lands. Hart is not satisfied with these kinds of assessments because they hold historical actors, in this case Harkin, to the standards of contemporary knowledge and ideology. When viewed in the context of his era, Hart argues that Harkin’s actions make perfect sense, and that he did everything in his power to move his national park agenda forward.

Hart poured over governmental files and a few personal collections, such as the M.B. Williams papers that are also examined by MacEachern in A Century of Parks Canada, in order to develop a fuller understanding of Harkin and his motives and to once again bring Harkin into the limelight that Hart believes he deserves. One of Hart’s findings is that Harkin did not view himself merely as director of the National Parks, but rather as a member of the Department of Interior. Thus, many of his actions were done with the needs and motives of the entire department in mind. Sometimes it was best to promote tourism and accessibility in order to drive profit in often inhospitable budgetary moments, and at other times it was better to preserve nature and wilderness as pristinely as possible. In order to ensure the survival of his program he could not rely solely on preservationist sentiment because it was neither relatable to the public nor profitable enough for the government. He had to play off a mixture of technological trends, social values, health understanding, and scientific findings.

Hart acknowledges Harkin’s initial faith in internment labor and relief camps that Bella wholeheartedly criticizes. However, he also points out that Harkin was aware and regretful of the negative aspects of the camps. Hart also emphasizes Harkin’s pioneering wildlife preservation efforts, and claims that without the seeds that Harkin planted, Canada’s wildlife preservation would only be a shadow of its current self. He also shows how increased environmental awareness in the 1920s enabled him to finally curtail resource extraction, such as mining, within park borders. Hart effectively demonstrates the fact that Harkin was only able to accomplish what public consensus allowed at any given moment, and to expect him to have done more or differently is to ask too much of the dead.

Feature Photo: Screenshot of J.B. Harkin image search, Library and 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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