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Reviewed by:
  • J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks by E.J. (Ted) Hart
  • Alan Maceachern
J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. E.J. (TED) Hart. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010. Pp. 592, $34.95

J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks is both more and less than the “prosaic biography” (xix) its author E.J. (Ted) Hart promises. In tracing the career of the first commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch, precursor to Parks Canada, from its establishment in 1911 to his retirement in 1936, Hart provides the most comprehensive, informed, and accessible examination of the early Canadian parks system yet written. Chapters on the political context of the branch’s creation, wartime relief, the 1930 National Parks Act, predator policy, and on a raft of other topics related to parks are told in detail here, and told well. And because of the Parks Branch’s standing – not only as a national leader in matters as diverse as tourism publicity and wildlife management, but also as the first agency in the world devoted to national parks – its story is key to exploring the evolution of twentieth-century Canadian environmental policy and thought. Hart, the director emeritus and head archivist at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, brings to the book a deep scholarly knowledge of the relevant sources and a desire that their stories be better known.

What weakens the book is its insistence that it is a biography. Hart has uncovered little that was not already known about Harkin the [End Page 474] person, and little of interest. The very first sentence of the 500-page text admits that much of the subject’s personal life is “shrouded in time” (1). The commissioner’s wife of thirty years is mentioned in just two sentences; if there is reference anywhere to whether or not they had children, I missed it. Fifteen chapters deal solely with the quarter century that Harkin directed the Parks Branch; only two chapters even touch on his other fifty-five years. And when personal details are known, their potential relevance is underexplored. For example, Harkin took stress-related leaves of absence throughout his career. Even if Hart does not know exactly what afflicted Harkin, he might have speculated whether the branch’s campaign that parks help to rejuvenate urban professionals was shaped in any way by the commissioner’s own experience.

Hart’s argument for positioning the book as biography in the general absence of biographical material is that Harkin can be understood through his voluminous writing for the Parks Branch – his correspondence, annual reports, speeches, publicity material, ministerial notes, and so on – and that, in turn, the philosophy developed by the parks system can be understood only as the product of these writings. The problem is that Harkin was simply not the sole author of much of this literature, including correspondence and reports sent under his name. With his background as a journalist and political secretary, Harkin quite sensibly relied on the assistance of a staff of engineers, wildlife managers and scientists, publicity experts, and others when developing and communicating parks policy. This is perfectly evident in the archival material that Hart examined, and he concedes as much any number of times (such as on pages 64, 79, 152–3, and 481), but never to the point of allowing Harkin’s spotlight to be shared. And so, for example, in the endnotes Hart credits the authorship of one of the first parks tourism booklets to “[Harkin]” although not the Library and Archives Canada catalogue, not the Parks Branch, not even Harkin himself ever gave it that attribution.

But it would be going too far for a reviewer to suggest that a biography named after its subject is mis-titled. Hart tells of writing J.B. Harkin “to shine some light on this long-neglected individual so that Canadians can understand both Harkin and the world he functioned in, and by extension gain a better appreciation for their heritage of national parks and wildlife” (ix). Having published as close to a definitive biography of Harkin as is possible, while telling a first-rate history...


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