Swimming in Political Waters: Understanding Racism and Exclusion at Banff National Park

Scroll this

Support NiCHE Today

The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) is a volunteer-led, not-for-profit public history organization dedicated to the dissemination of environmental history research in Canada and building a network of researchers. We make a blog, book reviews, news & announcements, a monthly newsletter, a podcast, videos, a peer-reviewed journal, teaching/research resources, research project websites, and more.

If you like what we do, consider becoming a supporter today.

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 the summer of 2020 we wrote a piece on racism and exclusion at Banff National Park, and began with a 1910 story of some “lady tourists” who objected to sharing the bathing pools at Cave and Basin with “negroes and chinamen.”

Their complaint was only one of a number voiced in relatively short order. Indeed, in March 1912, Howard Douglas, the Chief Superintendent of Dominion Parks in Edmonton, told his boss, Parks Commissioner J.B. Harkin, that “for the last two or three years we have had considerable complaints about negroes and chinamen going to the pools while other bathers are there.” He went on to report that it was often the case that a dozen or so CPR sleeping car porters – on a layover in their transcontinental trip – would “go in a body” to the swimming pools, causing the white patrons there to leave. Chinese men did the same thing, albeit in smaller numbers, with the same result.1

Recognizing that tourist dollars and the amenity’s reputation were at stake, local park officials responded by limiting access: Black and Chinese men were told they could use the bathing facilities but only between seven and eight o’clock in the morning, when few other patrons were likely to be present.

But when word of that restriction reached Ottawa, it was met with some consternation. While “in the case of Chinamen this should no doubt be done,” J.B. Harkin worried about imposing such limits on Black men. “The case is more difficult,” he wrote in April. “It does not appear desirable to formulate distinctions against them as a class and yet the popularity of the Baths will suffer greatly if they are allowed to enter with white people.”2

Harkin’s response seems at odds with what we know about the prevalence of anti-Black racism at the time.3 But it wasn’t. It’s not that he and parks authorities wanted to figure out another way to admit Black men to the pools; rather, they wanted to come up with a different means of exclusion, one that was less explicitly racist in appearance and more in line with the federal government’s overall approach to keeping Canada’s colour line intact. This approach is most evident in the evolution of Canada’s immigration regulations in the early twentieth century and how these were applied to immigrants from the United States. Canada, it should be noted, actively recruited American immigrants, as well as tourists, during this period.

Immigration policy was shaped by both domestic and international political concerns. Federal politicians and bureaucrats were well aware that exclusionary measures would have an impact on the electoral fortunes of the government of the day. Barring the Chinese was easy in that regard: they didn’t vote. But the Black population did. As William J. White, a senior bureaucrat with the Immigration Branch told Minister of the Interior Frank Oliver in 1909, “There is a fairly large colored vote in Eastern Canada, most of which is liberal, and if it came to their notice that their people were being discriminated against, it might lead to their opposition. On the other hand I know that the people in the West do not care to have them in their neighbourhood.”4

International relations also shaped how the federal government went about barring Black immigrants. When in 1911 some US politicians charged that Canada’s immigration policies were explicitly racist – given reports that African Americans were being turned back at the border – Ottawa was quick to deny that was the case, worried that it might erode US-Canada relations. In particular, it was concerned that the American government would walk away from the reciprocity (free trade) agreement the Liberals had worked so hard to negotiate. Targetting Black immigrants overtly for exclusion would also endanger the possibility of federation with some of the British West Indian colonies, a possibility then being discussed by Canadian commercial interests.5

1911 editorial cartoon depicting an African American immigrant being stopped at the border with Alberta a told he cannot come to Canada because of the cold climate.
Being unsuited to “the climate and requirements of Canada” was a reason immigration agents used to bar African Americans from entering the country. Originally published in the Edmonton Journal [now a division of Postmedia, Inc.], 5 May 1911, p. 5.

It’s this broader context of Canada’s approach to immigration, both at the level of policy and personnel, that’s crucial to understanding Harkin’s response and the shape of exclusion at Banff. Immigration policy aimed to keep out “undesirables” without singling out specific racial groups. To do so, Ottawa armed its immigration agents and customs officers with the discretion to implement new, seemingly colour-blind, regulations, requiring, for instance, that prospective immigrants arrive in Canada via a “continuous journey” from their country of origin (1908), that they be suited for “the climate and requirements of Canada” (1910), and that they have a certain amount of money in their possession on arrival (1910).6 When challenged, such regulations allowed Oliver and his officials to claim that there was no colour line; rather, those who were denied entry were “unsuitable” immigrants who just happened to be Black.7

Key national parks personnel had direct experience with implementing these measures: in particular, J.B. Harkin and W.W. Cory. Before he became Parks Commissioner in 1911, Harkin worked as private secretary to two Ministers of the Interior, Clifford Sifton and his successor, Frank Oliver.8 In 1908, concerns about the increasing flow of immigrants – including African-Americans – across the US-Canada border led to his appointment as immigration inspector with authority over the international boundary in western Canada.9 Harkin’s responsibilities included supervising customs officers in their newly expanded role as immigration agents. This was one of a series of measures Canada took in the early twentieth century to impose immigration controls at the land border with the United States.10

J.B. Harkin (1937). Credit: Yousuf Karsh, Yousuf Karsh fonds / Library and Archives Canada, Accession 1987-054 .

Harkin’s work in both these capacities gave him a front row seat to the complexities of enacting racial exclusion. As Parks Commissioner, he gave voice to those difficulties, telling Assistant Deputy Minister of the Interior J.A. Coté, “It is exceedingly undesirable that the Department should make any rule discriminating against negroes as a class,” and yet something had to be done, as tourists – and especially those from the US – would be put off by the knowledge they would “have to share the bathing pools with negroes.”11

It fell to Harkin’s and Coté’s boss, William Wallace Cory, to act. Cory joined the Department of the Interior in 1901, becoming Deputy Minister in 1905, a position he kept until 1930. Given he had charge of a Department that oversaw both the Immigration and Parks Branches, it’s not surprising that Cory’s views on who should be given access to the pools at Banff were similar to Harkin’s.

W.W. Cory (1905). Credit: William J. Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-167436

But unlike Harkin, Cory had the clout to translate those views into effective action. Rather than formulate new policy for Cave and Basin, however, the Deputy Minister made a call to David McNicholl, one of the CPR’s Vice Presidents, in April 1912.12 Six months later, Harkin reported that the railway had taken care of the matter by simply “issu[ing] orders that its porters must not use the government baths.”13 As a private company, the CPR wasn’t constrained by the same concerns that government and the civil service were, namely, that they would be called to account publicly during question period or made to pay for their discriminatory actions at the polls.

As all historians can appreciate, understanding what parks authorities did and didn’t do and how they went about it requires a deep immersion in context. In this case, understanding racism and exclusion at Banff requires us to get beyond the parks branch and its archival record. We had to appreciate the administrative connections between parks and immigration policies and the broader civil service experience that the individuals who enacted exclusion brought to their task. Swimming in such political waters is a good, if sometimes tedious, exercise. But like all exercise, it has its rewards – in this case seeing the connections between domestic and international. Racial concerns knew no such boundaries.

Featured Image: Cave and Basin swimming pool, Banff National Park, Alberta, 1948. Source: Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board of Canada.

1. Howard Douglas, Chief Superintendent Dominion Parks, Edmonton, to [J.B. Harkin] Commissioner Dominion Parks, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 26 March 1912. Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG84, A-2-a, vol. 510, file B143, part 3, Hot Springs Operations.
2. Memorandum to Mr. Cory [W.W. Cory, the Deputy Minister of the Department of the Interior], from [J.B. Harkin, Commissioner, Dominion Parks], Dominion Parks Branch, Ottawa, 13 April 1912. LAC, RG84, A-2-a, vol. 510, file B143, part 3, Hot Springs Operations.
3. Robin Winks suggests that between 1900 and 1920, “Canadian racial awareness was at its height.” See his Blacks in Canada: A History. Second Edition. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 300 and in general 300-310. Key works on Black migration to Canada we consulted include Sarah-Jane Mathieu, North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); R. Bruce Shepard, “Diplomatic Racism: Canadian Government and Black Migration from Oklahoma, 1905-1912,” Great Plains Quarterly 3, 1 (1983): 5-16 and his “Plain Racism: The Reaction Against Oklahoma Black Immigration to the Canadian Plains,” Prairie Forum 10, 2 (1985): 367-382; Harold Martin Troper, “The Creek Negroes of Oklahoma and Canadian Immigration,” Canadian Historical Review 53, 3 (1972): 272-288; and Rachel M. Wolters, “‘We Heard Canada Was a Free Country’: African American Migration in the Great Plains, 1890-1911.” PhD. Diss. (Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2017).
4. W.J. White, Canadian Government Agency, St. Paul Minn. to Frank Oliver, Edmonton, 14 September 1909. LAC, RG76 Immigration of Negroes from the United States to Western Canada, vol. 192, file 72552, part 1.
5. Winks, Blacks in Canada, 307-308.
6. “Continuous Journey Regulation,” and “Immigration Act, 1910
7. See Mathieu, North of the Color Line, 40; W.D. Scott to A.L. Hills, Ohio, 29 April 1909, RG76, vol. 192, file 72552, part 1; F.C. Blair, for the Superintendent of Immigration, to C. Makins, Boynton, Ohio, 4 April 1911, and W.D. Scott to J.N. MacGill, Immigration Agent, Vancouver, 1 May 1911, both from LAC, RG76, vol. 192, file 72552, part 4.
8. E.J. Hart, J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010), 14 and 17.
9. Memorandum to Mr. Fortier from W.D Scott, Department of the Interior, Ottawa, 19 March 1908. LAC, RG76, vol. 509, file 784040.
10. Commissioner of Immigration, [Winnipeg] to W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, 12 December 1904, LAC, RG76, vol. 335, file 350171, part 1; Frank Oliver, Minister of Interior, to His Excellency, the Governor General in Council, 26 February 1908, LAC, RG766, vol. 335, file 350171, part 2; and “Progressive Step to Guard Boundary, “Victoria Daily Times 31 March 1908 in LAC, RG76, vol. 335, file 350171, part 2.
11. Memorandum to Mr. J.A. Coté [Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior, from J.B. Harkin [Commissioner of Dominion Parks], Department of the Interior, Ottawa], 12 June 1912 re: Mr. Bosworth’s letter and enclosures regarding question of use of bath equipment at Banff by negroes. LAC, RG84, A-2-a, vol. 510, file B143, part 3, Hot Springs Operations.
12. Memorandum from W.W. Cory, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Ottawa, to J.B. Harkin [Commissioner of Dominion Parks], 17 April 1912. LAC, RG84, A-2-a, vol. 510, file B143, part 3, Hot Springs Operations. At the time, David M’Nicholl was First Vice President of the CPR; see “David M’Nicholl dies at Guelph,” Globe and Mail 27 November 1916, 7.
13. Memorandum to Mr. J.A. Coté [Assistant Deputy Minister of the Interior], 11 October 1912 [from J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of Dominion Parks]. LAC, RG84, A-2-a, vol. 510, file B143, part 3, Hot Springs Operations. It wasn’t the first time Immigration had asked the CPR for its help regulating the movements of Black people. After the CPR had transported a group of Barbadian men to Estevan, Saskatchewan in 1908, the Department of Immigration wrote McNicholl asking that the company “kindly aid the department in discouraging this class of immigration.” W.D. Scott, Superintendent of Immigration, to D. McNicholl, Esq., Vice-President, CPR Company, Montreal, PQ, 26 August 1908. LAC, RG76, vol. 192, file 72552, part 1.
The following two tabs change content below.

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.

1 Comment

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.