Getting into Hot Water: Racism and Exclusion at Banff National Park

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This post is part of an ongoing series called, “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.

In 1910, a group of “lady tourists” vacationing at Banff objected to having to share the bathing pools at Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs with “negroes and chinamen.”[1] It wasn’t an isolated incident. 

Nearly ten years later, two Black men were turned away when they tried to buy tickets to bathe. William Fulcher, who ran a shoeshine stand in Banff, and J. Barsalou, a CPR waiter, were told they could come back in the early morning or evening to swim in the pool, or use one of the private tubs.[2]

Tea being served to passengers in Tourist Car; 1926. Photo credit: Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History, 0365.0028 – C.P.R. Sleeping Car Collection.

By the time Calgary resident Ho Lem came to Banff in 1929 with a dozen Chinese boys in tow – part of a YMCA camping trip – he knew enough to ask whether he and his crew, along with Mr. Wong, a teacher who was also part of the group, would be welcome to get wet at Cave and Basin.[3]

Calgary Chinese Y's boys hockey team
This photograph of Calgary’s “David Yui Hi-Y Hockey Team” in the 1920s likely includes some of the boys Ho Lem hoped to take swimming at Cave and Basin. Glenbow Archives, University of Calgary, Young Men’s Christian Association (Calgary) Fonds, Series 6, M 1710 Ovr.

It wasn’t surprising that the unnamed “negroes and chinamen,” along with Fulcher, Barsalou, Ho Lem, Wong, and the YMCA boys wanted to swim and bathe. Banff was a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Set aside in 1885, the original hot springs reserve was created for the “sanitary” advantage of Canadians.[4] Politicians praised the health-giving qualities of both the warm water and the fresh mountain air.[5] By the 1920s, the facilities at Cave and Basin included a large, modern, and immensely popular “cool” swimming pool for recreational use. At the Upper Hot Springs, bathers could soothe their ailments in a warm pool or private tubs at the “government baths.”

“A ‘colourized’ image of the pool at Cave and Basin in the 1920s. Parks Canada.

Because of prevailing racial attitudes in the early twentieth century, trouble often found Black and Chinese men. Ironically, at Banff this meant it was literally hard for them to get into hot, or even simply cool, water. Longstanding stereotypes about race and gender had particular purchase in the context of the rising popularity of mixed sex recreational swimming such as that on offer at Cave and Basin. This tension likely increased as bathing costumes shed fabric and revealed form. At both Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs, men and women bathed and swam together in the public pools. But as Jeff Wiltse argues, people of colour paid the price for this liberality: in municipal pools in the US, gender integration led to racial segregation.[6]

Given prevailing racist beliefs about the sexual appetites of Black and Chinese men – stemming from the former’s presumed animality and the latter’s lack of access to women – it wasn’t surprising that their presence at a pool would cause lady tourists to blanch and park authorities to act on complaints, or even the potential for them. Pools and bathhouses were eroticized areas where, by the standards of the day, scantily clad male and female patrons came into close contact. Once their bodies were partially submerged, anything could happen – or so people thought.[7]

Such hostility towards non-white swimmers isn’t especially unusual even if it is objectionable and was at the time. What makes these stories significant is what they reveal of how and why park authorities implemented racial exclusion. They allow us to contextualize and historicize the forms and meanings of racism, as well as the claims racialized peoples made for inclusion.

Given the distaste, revulsion, and fear about the presence of Black and Chinese men, it’s perhaps surprising that park authorities didn’t bar them completely or institute explicit, publicly posted, segregated swimming times as happened at municipal pools in the United States. 

Instead, park employees were told to inform Black and Chinese patrons “as nicely possible” that they could use the pools in the early morning or evening. If that didn’t suit, they could avail themselves of the smaller private tubs at the Upper Hot Springs.[8]

Black and Chinese visitors were thus subjected to a less conspicuous – and more polite – kind of racism, one that manifested itself in temporal and spatial segregation. They could come at times when white patrons were less likely to be present, and they could always use separate facilities. This segregation was built on the distinction park authorities drew between their amenities: the public pools were for recreational use while the tubs were usually reserved for those who wanted to soak out of sight for therapeutic reasons. 

While racism provided the foundation for exclusion, it doesn’t entirely explain the form it took in Banff. Park authorities were also influenced by ideas of fairness as well as material and class considerations. The discourse of citizenship, an important element in the promotion of national parks to Canadians in the 1920s, also informed their response.

While the Commissioner of Parks recommended barring Black and Chinese men outright, the Minister of the Interior thought better of it.[9] Perhaps he recognized, as Banff’s superintendent did, that, as citizens, these men were “morally entitled” to access, especially where it pertained to health.[10] Thus, access to the private tubs at the Upper Hot Springs for health-related bathing was provided for, but exclusion from recreational swimming at Cave and Basin was justifiable.

The moral high ground was one thing, the bottom line another. Because Banff was dependent on tourism, park authorities didn’t think they could afford to be inclusive. Doing so would, they believed, alienate the largely white clientele that visited the pools – and that didn’t make economic sense, particularly when there were no more than twenty or thirty Black visitors every year and Black and Chinese visitors together constituted no more than “a fraction of one per cent of the number of people using the pool.”[11]

But the fact Banff was a tourist destination also complicated the practice of exclusion and revealed the class considerations shaping it. Given the town’s profile, there was a real chance that people of colour possessing “rank and standing” – like diplomats or members of visiting foreign delegations – might make their way to the pools and be mistakenly denied.[12] In order to avoid embarrassment it was better not to have a rigid policy. When Banff’s Superintendent repeatedly told Ho Lem there wasn’t any regulation barring him from using the hot springs, he was, strictly speaking, correct. The discreet exclusion in operation rested on an informal “understanding” that required park employees to exercise their judgement.[13]

The views of the Black and Chinese men denied admission to the pools speak eloquently to what, in their judgement, they believed to be the prerequisites for belonging. Denied entry to the Upper Hot Springs in August 1919, William Fulcher, “a middle aged negro of the very black type,” refused the offer of a private tub and instead put pen to paper.[14] His claim for admission rested on his military service.

But being a returned soldier wasn’t the only thing that made him worthy: his status as a tax paying Canadian did as well. Fulcher found it particularly galling that tourists from the US were responsible for spreading the kind of racism that resulted in his exclusion. While men like him were fighting at the front, “the dirty, filthy snakes from across the line” – who didn’t join the war effort until 1917 – had the luxury of enjoying everything Banff had to offer.

I ask you in the name of God and the King change this law if the prejudis [sic] snakes from the States that come here as tourists do not … want to bath with gentlemen of our type or in the same pool[,] our taxes will pay for upkeep of the park just the same. I was one of the volunteers to join the colors of Canada, in the name of the King, the maple leaf forever.[15]

While Fulcher’s arguments didn’t sway park authorities, Ho Lem’s did. His claim for inclusion rested on the fact that he and Wong were Canadian citizens and members of the Calgary YMCA, and hence respectable.[16] Those qualities and, perhaps, his persistence – which came with a hint that he might relish a fight over exclusion – won the day. He, Wong, and the Chinese boys were allowed “to use the pools at any time they were open to the general public.” In return, Ho Lem and Wong agreed “to accept responsibility” if there was any trouble.[17] 

Stories of racial exclusion at Banff’s pools are elusive. The incidents we began with are each about a decade apart: 1910, 1919, and 1929. Apart from them, we’ve not been able to find others in the administrative documentary record. The silence around Indigenous peoples’ use of the pools is especially striking. Apart from requests from the Indian Agent to give members of the Stoney Nakoda Nation free access to the baths at the Upper Hot Springs from the 1930s to the late 1960s, usually for therapeutic reasons, they are absent from the written record.[18] 

Their invisibility, along with that of other racialized peoples, particularly after the 1940s, may mean that people of colour stopped trying to get into hot water at Banff, at least in ways that left an archival trace. Or it may reflect shifting attitudes about race after the Second World War that made it less acceptable to bar people of colour, “nicely” or otherwise.

Feature Image: A woman climbs out of the newly renovated pool at Cave and Basin in c. 1936. Parks Canada.

[1] A.B. Macdonald, Superintendent, Rocky Mountains Park to Mr. Smith, CPR Sleeping Car Agent, Banff, 9 August 1910, Superintendent’s Letterbook, 22/6/10-19/8/10, vol. 571, B-1-a-i, RG 84 (Parks Canada), Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

[2] Superintendent [Rocky Mountains Park] to J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, 23 October 1919 and J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, to Superintendent, Rocky Mountains Park, 23 October 1919, F. B-1-3 (Bathing Privileges), Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG 84, LAC.

[3]  RS, [R.S. Stronach] Superintendent, Memorandum to File, 15 July 1929, F. B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG 84, LAC.

[4]  Order-in-Council 1885-2197, vol. 475, A-1-a, RG 2, LAC.

[5]  John A. Macdonald, Canada, Parliament, House of Commons Debates, 6th Parliament, 1st Session, 3 May 1887 (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger, 1887), 233.

[6]  Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), Chapter 5.

[7]  On attitudes towards Black and Chinese men, see Barrington Walker, “Finding Jim Crow in Canada, 1789-1967,” in A History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues, ed. Janet Miron (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2009), 81-96; Sarah-Jane Mathieu, North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); W. P. Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy toward Orientals in British Columbia (2nd ed., Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1990); Scott Kerwin, “The Janet Smith Bill of 1924 and the language of race and nation in BC,” BC Studies 121 (1999): 83–114; and Elise Chenier, “Sex, Intimacy, and Desire among Men of Chinese Heritage and Women of Non-Asian Heritage in Toronto, 1910–1950,” Urban History Review 42, 2 (2014): 29-43. On the eroticization of swimming pools, see Wiltse, Contested Waters, Chapter 4.

[8]  A.B. Macdonald, Supt., Rocky Mountains Park, Banff, Alta, to Walter Garrett, [Caretaker]Upper Hot Springs, 8 August 1910, Superintendent’s Letterbook, 22/6/10-19/8/10, vol. 571, B-1-a-i, RG 84 LAC; Superintendent, [Rocky Mountains Park] to Earnest Able, [A. Caretaker], Cave and Basin, 8 August 1910, F. B-1-3, Box 3, E1985-86/147, RG 84, LAC.

[9]  Writing to the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Commissioner J.B. Harkin argued that “in view of the small number of colored people and Orientals under consideration, the Department should take the stand that no colored folks or Orientals can be allowed the use of these pools at any time. If any of these people desire to use these waters for curative purposes, provision can be made for their accommodation at the Upper Hot Springs where they can use the tub baths.” He further addressed the question of citizenship and its entitlements: “The fact that some of these colored people or Orientals may be naturalized or even native born Canadians is not, I submit, sufficient of itself to justify our attempting to force the great majority of Canadians to either consort with them or deny themselves the privileges of the Bathhouse…. it seems to me this is one of those unpleasant problems that arise from time to time which have to be decided on the basis of the greatest good to the greatest number, even though the feelings of the minority are hurt thereby.” J.B. Harkin, [Commissioner], to W.W. Cory, Deputy Minister of the Interior, 18 December 1929; For the response from Ottawa, see R.A. Gibson, Acting Deputy Minister, to J.B. Harkin, [Commissioner], 19 December 1929. F.B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[10]  Superintendent, [Rocky Mountains Park] to J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, 23 October 1919, F. B-1-3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[11]  The Superintendent of Rocky Mountain Park told Ottawa that “if a negro were allowed in the public pool, the bathers there would immediately leave.” The Deputy Commissioner of Parks in Ottawa agreed, noting that “The Department must also view this matter from the standpoint of public revenue, as well as service to the greatest number. If the free use of the baths by a few Orientals or coloured people is going to result in large numbers of white people discontinuing the use of the baths, then obviously the Department will be bound to restrict the use of the baths by such coloured people and Orientals.” See Superintendent, Rocky Mountain Park, to J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, 23 October 1919; F.H.H. Williamson, Deputy Commissioner of Parks, Ottawa, to Superintendent, Rocky Mountain Park, Banff, 19 July 1929; Superintendent, Rocky Mountain Park, to J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, 30 October 1919; and J.B. Harkin, Superintendent, to W.W. Cory, Deputy Minister of the Interior, 18 December 1929, F-B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[12]  W.M. Noble, Caretaker, C+B, to Supt B.N. Park, 8 August 1931, F-B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[13]  Instead, he acknowledged there had been “an understanding that Orientals would not use the Cave & Basin Pool during the busy months, except after 6 p.m. as had been the practice.” RS [R.S. Stronach] Superintendent, Memo for File, 10 June 1929, F-B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[14]  Superintendent [Rocky Mountains Park] to J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, 23 October 1919 and J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Parks, to Superintendent, Rocky Mountains Park, 23 October 1919, F. B-1-3 (Bathing Privileges), Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG 84, LAC.

[15]  Wm. Fulcher [to Superintendent], Banff, 6 October 1919, Box 3, F. B-1-3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[16]  Ho Lem became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1911. See Canada Gazette, 1914-1920, 338. “Mr. Wong” was likely Wong Kong Sem, otherwise known as Wong Wah, who was very involved with the Chinese Mission in Calgary, a part of the Calgary YMCA, that, among other things offered English classes to Chinese immigrants. See “Chinese Mission Marks 65th Year,” Calgary Herald 3 December 1966 and “Wong, Wah – Obituary,” Calgary Herald 24 April 1974. As for William Fulcher, he appears to have left Banff after 1919. The only record we have of him is from 1926, when he was a lodger in Winnipeg, living at 220 Selkirk Avenue in a house headed by John A. Robinson, a British West Indian man who helped found the Order of Sleeping Car Porters in 1917, the first Black railway union in North America. Canada. 1926 Census of the Prairie Provinces and Mathieu, North of the Color Line, Chapters 2 and 3.

[17]  RS [R.S. Stronach] Superintendent, Memo to File, 15 July 1929, F. B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC.

[18]  See for instance, R. Hunter, Indian Agent, to Major Jennings, Superintendent, Banff Park, 13 July 1931 asking that an Indigenous woman, who suffered from rheumatism, be allowed free access to the Upper Hot Springs, F. B-1-3, Box 3, Acc. E1985-86/147, RG84, LAC; J.A. Hutchinson, Superintendent, to Controller, National Parks Service, 25 July 1949, noted that “certain Indians who come every year to take part in Indian Days” were allowed access to Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs for free; and E.C. Carleton, Warden Service, to Superintendent, Banff National Park, 17 May 1967, asked that the park allow a seventy-five year old Indigenous man from Morley to use the baths as it would be beneficial to his health, F.144 (Free Bathing Privileges), Box 103, Acc. 1997-98/160, RG84, LAC.

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Meg Stanley and Tina Loo

Meg Stanley is an historian with Parks Canada in Calgary whose work focusses on the western parks including Banff. She has published articles on recreational canoeing and books on hydroelectric development in British Columbia. Tina Loo teaches Canadian and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. She has written on wildlife conservation, the impacts of hydroelectric development in British Columbia, and, most recently, forced relocations in postwar Canada.


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