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 writing history, I struggle with representativeness. Take the work I’ve done on the history of national parks in Canada. Imagine that 10,000 people go to a park to soak up its nature, and the vast majority – say, 9000 – get what they came for. But of the remaining 1000, ten write a letter of complaint to Parks Canada, six of those letters are retained, three eventually make it to Library and Archives Canada, two I read, and one is particularly angry or pathetic or just well-worded.
That may well be the one I write about.
I understand why we historians do this. History is not equitable: it’s not as if each unit of time, of space, of people will ever be given uniform coverage in our pages. If the 9000 contented park-goers don’t leave a written record of their stay, they offer little for the historian to write about, and they certainly can’t expect 9000 times the attention that the single expressive discontented one will get. “Man bites dog” is of interest in a way that “dog bites man” isn’t. More importantly, there really is disproportionate value in a letter from the disgruntled, which can lay bare the way a system works, expose problems, demonstrate resistance, and offer alternatives, not to mention spotlight the system’s response. And yet I worry about giving short shrift to the gruntled.
Apparently, I was concerned about representativeness when I wrote a section about racial discrimination in national parks for my PhD and first book Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada. I prefaced the section by stating defensively, “the cases which follow are the only ones I found in researching the four parks’ histories: they are not meant to be representative of how minorities were treated in the Eastern parks.”
Since writing those words 25 years ago, I’ve probably changed some. Research certainly has: much of the material that I combed through in boxes and microfilm is now available online. (All thanks, Canadiana.ca.) That means that, rather than just cutting and pasting that section of my book about racial discrimination in parks here, I can now “exhibit” these stories by linking back to the original correspondence, and talk briefly about how I see them differently today. Here are three of those stories.
James Smart, head of the National Parks Bureau in 1942, sent the Superintendent of Prince Edward Island National Park a list of issues concerning the park, following conversation with a recent visitor there. Point 7: “Jews are being allowed into the hotel.”
The seemingly bewildered Superintendent replied: It’s true, they are. But, he added, it’s not like the Dalvay by the Sea hotel leaseholder could refuse admission to what was a public hotel anyway. In fact, perhaps “one dozen people of Hebrew extraction” stayed there this year “and they were very fine people and well behaved.” The Superintendent argued that the admission of Jews was a policy issue for the Parks Branch, not him or the hotel, to decide. He personally thought there was no issue “as long as they are of a suitable class.”
In the archival record at least, that was the end of the matter.
In 1948, a new Superintendent of PEI National Park wrote his superior with a new concern about a new leaseholder at Dalvay by the Sea. The hotel’s brochure advertised “Restricted Clientele!” — that is, no Jews allowed (and, presumably, no Black people either). The Superintendent was worried that such discrimination might reflect badly on the park system. (He might also have noted that the concessionaire had signed a lease agreeing to operate the service “without discrimination to all Park visitors.”)
The Assistant Controller differed with the Superintendent, believing it was the leaseholder’s business, not theirs. But the Director wrote back that the Deputy Minister vehemently disagreed: such policy could not be permitted within a national park. So the Assistant Controller wrote the leaseholder, telling him that “while we appreciate the situation that prompted the insertion of this phrase,” it was to be discontinued.
But it wasn’t. A year later, the brochure was still circulating.
Upon seeing the brochure in 1949, Elsie Kieran of the Women’s Voluntary Services in Montreal wrote in protest to the Parks Branch. “The recent war does not seem to have taught people much of a lesson if this sort of action persists,” Kieran wrote. The Executive Director of the Canadian Jewish Congress likewise complained, noting that the very idea of “restricted clientele” was antithetical to the parks’ entire mission.
Confronted again, the leaseholder explained that he had simply been using up the old brochures. He assured the parks administration that a new, revised folder “will not contain any reference to Restricted Clientele.”
He did not say he would stop discriminating.
In 1960, Harold DeWolf of Boston wrote to the the owner of the chalets within New Brunswick’s Fundy National Park. He and his wife were coming to Fundy, and wished to bring along their friends, a Negro couple: the husband, a minister and author with four degrees and “in every respect a cultivated gentleman,” the wife “also a cultured person of superior character.” (They were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. I’ve written about this incident here.) Can you assure us they will be accommodated and treated with the same privileges as other lodgers?
Chalet owner Robert Friars responded that the park is “open to persons of any Nationality, colour, or creed” … but that since he drew so many guests from the US, including the South, he couldn’t guarantee there would be no embarrassment, so “we feel that it would be better not to accommodate your friends.”
DeWolf and his wife came to Fundy, alone, but ultimately decided to complain to the Parks Branch about Friars’ letter.
The Branch’s response was definitive. Director Coleman stated in an internal handwritten note, “We just don’t condone this in a National Park,” and Fundy’s Superintendent was told to investigate the matter.
But the Superintendent concluded that it was all just a big misunderstanding, and the Branch was happy to accept this interpretation. An unsigned internal note said to “Prepare the usual ‘ will not happen’ reply” and the Chief wrote DeWolf, saying Friars’ statement “was in bad taste but it was not by any means intended as a direct refusal to make accommodation available.” The letter ended, “I am satisfied this will not happen again.”
I uncovered these stories in the archives in 1995, and the distance between then and the present is fast approaching the distance between then and the events themselves. Which is to say that time has passed, and I read these stories differently now than I did in 1995. For one, I can now glimpse a hint of societal progress. There is racism in all three stories, but in the 1940s cases the general reaction on the part of Parks Branch staff was “Do we still allow that? Is it a problem for us if we do?” In the 1960 case, there was a clearer, although by no means unambiguous answer: “We don’t allow that. (So maybe it didn’t happen?)”
I also now better understand representativeness. In the 1948 incident, the number two man in the Parks Branch wrote bluntly why the leaseholder should be allowed to advertise “Restricted Clientele”:
In other words, senior parks administrators were perfectly aware that racial discrimination was widely, quietly being practiced within Canadian national parks. Advertising an assurance of discrimination in PEI National Park was unfortunate only because such advertising was unnecessary.
That’s why I was wrong to be apologetic in my book about the unrepresentativeness of these stories. Since Jewish and Black (and Indigenous and Asian and …) people were in a minority in Canada, of course their stories were in the minority. But their experiences of racial discrimination were absolutely commonplace, even if such stories only rarely made it into the archives. What appears to be an unrepresentative story is in fact an everyday one, seldom visible. As historians, we need to consider that what first seems to be a “man bites dog” story may be a “dog bites man” story after all — and that this makes it more, rather than less, in need of telling.
Featured Image: Brochure for Dalvay Hotel, PEINP, in http://heritage.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.lac_reel_t10505/1688?r=0&s=3
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