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  • J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada's National Parks
  • Peter E. Rider
Hart, E.J. (Ted) — J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada's National Parks. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010. Pp. xxii, 564.

The appearance of a biography of J.B. Harkin, the "father of Canada's National Parks," was timely, as it presaged by a few months the 2011 centenary of the creation of Parks Canada. Perhaps completed for the occasion, the massive tome of over 500 pages took five laborious years to piece together. Author E.J. (Ted) Hart combed the departmental records of the Dominion Parks Service and related collections to craft a carefully-weighed and detailed account Harkin's career. What emerges, however, is less a study of Harkin, the man, than of the administration of his organization from its formation in 1911 until his retirement in 1935.

Hart had several objectives in mind in undertaking the project: to resurrect and rehabilitate the reputation of Harkin and his contributions to conservation in [End Page 421] Canada; to provide a framework within which these contributions can be fairly assessed; and to correct some of the misconceptions that have arisen concerning him and his work since the 1970s. The author, who approached his subject with a predisposed sympathy, largely succeeds in portraying him as a capable, astute administrator who faithfully struggled to advance the cause of conservation, often in the face of adverse attitudes and circumstances. He may have overreached, though, in conferring upon Harkin the status of "a great Canadian."

Certainly the book is written in the great man tradition, with clearly defined forces for right or wrong and with a hint of predestination attached to the central character. After an opening chapter tracing Harkin's early career as a journalist and an aide to Clifford Sifton and Frank Oliver, Hart begins a stage-by-stage account of Harkin's tenure of office. Drafted into the new position of Commissioner of Dominion Parks within the Department of the Interior, Harkin was soon engaged in justifying the existence of his organization and defending its interests against assaults from within and beyond the bureaucracy. He proved himself to be a wily and tenacious infighter who steadily advanced his causes. His ability to argue his viewpoint exceeded his originality of thought, as many of his perceptions of conservation were borrowed from subordinates and outsiders, particularly conservationists in America. Although he had some opponents within the department, and even his own parks branch, most of the opposition to his administrative goals came from outside, principally from commercial interests that had designs on resources found within the national parks.

Surviving the transition from Conservative to Liberal rule in 1921, Harkin was largely successful in expanding the role of the parks service in the department and promoting conservation more generally. Passage of the National Parks Act in 1930 promised to secure the vision that Harkin advocated. The transition back to Conservative rule in 1930 was bumpier. One of the not insignificant number of enemies Harkin had made along the way was R.B. Bennett, the new Prime Minister, and an uncomfortable stand-off ensued in which the Commissioner was marginalised with respect to some key operations of his department while still attaining important goals in other areas. Ironically, his departure came only after changing political fortunes returned the Liberals to government.

The events of Harkin's tenure of office are recounted in minute detail. There seems to be no personal encounter, intellectual influence, controversy, or administrative conundrum too small to ignore. This makes, at times, tedious reading despite the fluent and clear prose style. The details can be overwhelming. Yet, the minutiae are one of the work's great strengths. Hart has written a very thorough piece of administrative history. By catching the cadence of bureaucratic life, he has imparted a sense of Harkin's reality. This provides the context in which Harkin can be fairly assessed. In administration, the proverbial devil is often found in the detail, and without careful attention to the fine points, a clear understanding of important matters can be obscured. The day-to-day management of individual issues, great and small, is what characterizes a...


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