Parks Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Parks Canada

The federal agency now known as Parks Canada was established in 1911 under the name of the Dominion Parks Branch. Charged with administering a small group of parks and reserves, it was the world's first national parks service.

Parks Canada

The federal agency now known as Parks Canada was established in 1911 under the name of the Dominion Parks Branch. Charged with administering a small group of parks and reserves, it was the world's first national parks service. A century later, Parks Canada administers a greatly expanded system of protected areas that spans the country and includes 42 national parksand park reserves, 167 national historic sites and 4 national marine conservation areas and marine parks.

Beginnings at Banff

Parks Canada traces its origins back to 1885, when the federal government set aside a small area around the hot springs at Banff for public use. This hot springs reserve was expanded into Canada's first national park 2 years later (see Banff National Park). By the time the Dominion Parks Branch was created in 1911, Canada had 5 national parks. Three of them were along the Canadian Pacific Railway line, and all were in the Rocky Mountains. These early parks attracted wealthy tourists from around the world but relatively few Canadians had opportunities to visit them.

Enter James B. Harkin

Into this situation stepped James B. Harkin, appointed in 1911 as the first commissioner to head the newly-established Dominion Parks Branch. Influenced by such notable preservation advocates as John Muir, he proposed setting aside publicly accessible wilderness areas across the country. During Harkin's 25-year tenure, Canada added 13 national parks. Some of them, including Point Pelee and Wood Buffalo, were created specifically to preserve wildlife (see Wildlife Preserve). Harkin and his staff also worked successfully to amend the 1911 legislation that had decreased the size of the mountain parks and limited the establishment of new parks. They opposed existing regulations that permitted logging and mining in national parks. Along with organizations such as the Alpine Club of Canada and the Canadian National Parks Association, they lobbied for their vision of parks as wilderness preserves. Their work culminated in the passage by Parliament of the National Parks Act of 1930, which limited industrial development within parks.

National historic sites also became an important part of Parks Canada's mandate under Harkin. In 1919, encouraged by heritage activists, he spearheaded the establishment of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). It remains closely associated with Parks Canada, the administrative arm of the National Commemorative Program. Many of the early designations were tied to nation building, and included North-West Mounted Police posts along the Canada-United States border, military forts of the French and British regimes, and sites of early Aboriginal-European contact such as Nootka (Yuquot National Historic Site of Canada) on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Their commemoration was intended to serve several purposes: preserve Canada's history, educate citizens about their country's past and offer accessible outdoor recreation to urban Canadians harried by the crowding and bustle of Canada's burgeoning cities.

Park Development and the Importance of Ecological Integrity

As national parks became more numerous and accessible, they also became popular Canadian vacation destinations. Soon after Henry Ford introduced his Model T car, parks staff saw the tourism potential of the automobile. They encouraged visitation by motorists, wrote guidebooks promoting scenic drives, and designed roads and campgrounds for the new "autotourists." Park visitation increased dramatically in the 1910s and 1920s. Many families returned to the same parks year after year.

After the Second World War, more Canadians could afford cars, and many parks were flooded with visitors, new campgrounds and highways. By the 1960s, some Canadians were questioning the major developments at Banff and other high-use national parks. The number of tourists, combined with a growing awareness of worldwide environmental issues, made some visitors long for more secluded campsites and less intrusive infrastructure. Park administrators placed new limits on the growth of townsites and on resort-based tourist amenities such as golf courses. They developed new nature trails and popular interpretive programs. Environmental activists and organizations like the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (now CPAWS) lobbied successfully in the 1970s to limit a major ski resort at Lake Louise and to set aside new parks such as Nahanni National Park Reserve. Since 1988, the National Parks Act has recognized the importance of maintaining ecological integrity within park boundaries, while still encouraging visitation and sustainable recreation.

Human History within Sites and Parks

Like the parks, national historic sites also experienced an increase in funding and visitation after the Second World War. By the 1950s and into the 1990s, Parks Canada was restoring and developing major national historic sites across the country, including Dawson Historical Complex in the Yukon and the thousand-year-old Norse settlement of L'Anse Aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland (see Heritage Conservation). The Historic Sites and Monuments Board expanded its program to commemorate nationally significant persons like cancer activist Terry Fox and track star Fanny Rosenfeld, as well as events such as the signing of First Nations treaties and the admission of provinces into Confederation. Canada's national historic sites increasingly reflect the diversity of past Canadian experiences and cultures. The definition of national historic sites has since been expanded to include cultural landscapes, whose importance may stem from oral histories and landscape features rather than buildings or other structures.

Over time, Parks Canada came to acknowledge the importance of human history within national parks as well as historic sites. In part, this recognition reflected a growing awareness of the importance of the heritage of local people who were earlier excluded from parks they had considered home. Since 1970s, Parks Canada has sought closer working relationships with members of former displaced communities as well as with Canada's Indigenous peoples - First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and has integrated their histories into its interpretive programs.

National Marine Conservation Areas

National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) are the most recent of Parks Canada's major programs. The NMCA program was officially established in 2002 to protect key areas of Canada's coastlines and manage them for ecologically sustainable use. There are currently 4 national marine conservation areas and marine parks, the most recent of which is Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia, and the establishment of another in the Lancaster Sound region of Nunavut was commenced in 2010. Several more are in the planning stages.

International Leadership

For nearly half a century, Parks Canada has assumed a leadership role in the international conservation movement. Parks Canada has participated in the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites and is a signatory to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance as well as involved in the UNESCO designations of Biosphere Reserves. Moreover, Parks Canada has helped secure the designation of 15 Unesco World Heritage Sites in this country to date. They include places of universal significance like Gros Morne and Kluane national parks, as well as SGang Gwaay (see Anthony Island) and the Rideau Canal national historic sites.


In protecting and presenting parks and sites over the past hundred years, Parks Canada has been influenced by ongoing debates over Canadian identity, history, nature and culture. Canada's system of protected areas has been shaped not only by generations of politicians and staff members, but also through collaboration and discussions with Aboriginal peoples, historical and environmental organizations, and individual citizens. Recent public opinion surveys suggest that national parks and national historic sites continue to rank among Canadians' most valued symbols of identity.

Further Reading

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