A Visit to Banff

Vermillion Lakes

Vermillion Lakes

Last week I went to Banff to speak at the Whyte Museum, with Lyle Dick, about A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, the first book in NiCHE’s “Energy, Ecology & Environment” series. I hadn’t been in the park since 2005, and after three years of working on a history of the world’s first national parks agency, it was interesting to visit, caught between childhood memories of beaver-logo-ed summer visits, the alpine hoopla of the official centennial … and three years of academic critique.
So maybe just one nitpick: Parks Canada didn’t come into existence on May 19; rather, an Act respecting Forest Reserves and Parks received royal assent that day. And the Act simply allowed the government to appoint “such other person as is from time to time selected for that purpose” to oversee “their protection, care and management and their use and enjoyment as public parks and pleasure grounds.” Over the next few months, the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, first created a Dominion Parks Branch and then appointed James B. Harkin as some such person.
I’m not really complaining, though, because I love how old-school Canadian this is: to celebrate the centennial of a piece of federal legislation getting royal assent.

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

The mountains are lovely at this time of year. The sight and scent of lodgepole pines in late spring snow was wonderful; Lake Minnewanka and Lake Louise were still mostly frozen over, though you could see glimpses of the famed turquoise through the ice. There’s something so clean about mountain air.

The mountain parks, though, still cast a very long shadow over the story we tell about our national parks system. Interviewers – and Parks Canada – tended to blur the stories of the first national park and the first national agency, as though the Parks Branch sprung naturally and exclusively from Banff’s forehead. But the first century is really the story of an agency growing into its mandate, of expanding far beyond what anyone in 1911 could have imagined.

Van Horne at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

Van Horne at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

It’s a story of coming down from the mountains, taking an idea(l) of a Victorian alpine landscape into the Georgian Bay in the 1920s, the Bay of Fundy in the 1940s, or the arctic archipelago in the 1990s. And after the railway-hotel- in-1885 question, interviewers wanted to know the regional implications: what does the next century mean for parks in the north, asked CBC Yellowknife? When will Manitoba get another national park, asked CBC Winnipeg? (I have no idea.) It was probably mulish, but I started to make a point of mentioning eastern parks, even to western interviewers, and kudos to CBC Victoria (I think) for getting excited about Sable Island (By the way, there’s a fascinating thesis to be done on the second generation of national parks in Atlantic Canada: Kejimkujik, Gros Morne, Greenwich.)

Banff Avenue

Banff Avenue


The Banff townsite … well, it is what it is, as they say. On the one hand, it is unique: I don’t foresee a second La Senza franchise in another national park. But it’s also a compact and living artifact of older management styles evident in national parks right across the country: the rustic architecture of park buildings, residential streetscapes and house lots, the golf course at the Fairmont hotel. In this sense Banff is just the most concrete, or extreme, illustration that parks are places of human history, marked by generations of experiments in environmental management and manipulation.

Stamp unveiling, Harkin Hall, 19 May

Stamp unveiling, Harkin Hall, 19 May

I was inside the Administration building for the unveiling of a commemorative stamp in Harkin Hall. Not a raucous time, nor one with any sense of irony whatsoever, but as it turned out, a great snapshot of the character, and dilemmas, of Parks Canada. For one thing, the stamp was to be a generalized vision of Canada’s national parks, but according to the artist, the mountains were drawn from Banff, the animals were those found in Banff, and the style echoes the famous mid-century CPR posters of the mountain parks. For another, the stamp was the product of a back-and-forth with an advisory board (we’re talking federal bureaucracy here, remember). A bald eagle (too American) became a golden. A moose became a woodland caribou: as an endangered species, it was felt, it made a clearer statement about Parks Canada’s role as stewards … until an avalanche in Jasper swallowed one of the few (perhaps only) herds of caribou in the mountain parks, and a frantic phone call reversed the switch at the last minute. It was hardly the agency’s fault – it can’t control nature that closely, for heaven’s sake – but losing an endangered species was not something it wanted commemorated.

Like many environmental historians, I’ve struggled to find a comfortable place as an “activist academic.” As a citizen, should I be doing more? As a scholar, should I be doing less? Is teaching enough “activism”? I had an opportunity this week to make an environmental(ist) statement, and I’m not sure I did. In talking to reporters, I tried to say that the dual mandate of Parks Canada – to provide for our “benefit, education and enjoyment” as well as keep designated places “unimpaired for future generations” – really says something about how Canadians want to have our environmental cake and eat it too. Canada’s is a story of pragmatism and poetry: contentedly using nature for personal benefit and economic gain, while cultivating a romance and mythology about “wilderness” (I don’t know if environmental historians are even allowed to write that word without “”) or at least natural beauty. (This may be why in the centennial celebration, national historic sites were kept mostly under the stairs: it’s not that we have too little history, it’s that our geography is more photogenic.)

Along the Trans-Canada Highway

Along the Trans-Canada Highway

National parks are, in and of themselves, a reflection of this national duality. So they should also be a reminder to talk about the kind of relationship Canadians have, want to have, should have, with the natural world. It’s pretty troubling to think that we can so completely and self-delusionally divorce everyday use and nationalist imagination, and congratulate ourselves on 42 national parks while doing whatever we want to millions of square kilometres of the-rest-of-Canada. The Parks Canada centennial was full of references to ecological integrity, majestic scenery, natural treasures, etc. etc. But on a map of the world, the Rocky Mountain parks are not that far from the Athabaska tar sands. I was kind of surprised that everyone was so accepting of the contradiction, but unsure what to do with it. Should I have made the point more explicitly? Is it right to come to someone’s birthday party and criticize their boss?
This is a view of nature that John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, and even James B. Harkin would recognize and be comfortable with. But is that good enough for Parks Canada’s – and Canada’s – second century?

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Associate professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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