Book Review: J.B. Harkin: Father of Canadian National Parks

There has been in the last few decades an ongoing debate and dialogue about the differences between conservation and preservation, wilderness and wildness. There has also, inevitably so, been a perennial tension and clash about how best to challenge those who undermine minimal (much less meaningful) ecological sustainability and responsibility. What is the validity and limitation of protest and advocacy politics? Is there a legitimate place for those most committed to the environment to become politicians at provincial, federal and municipal levels? And, what role can responsible civil servants play in creating structures that limit and even halt irresponsible mining, logging, hunting and large scale damming projects?

J.B.Harkin (1875-1955) was, indeed, the father of Canada’s national parks and the battles he fought for many a decade as a civil servant to create the earliest phase of the national park system has been ably and brilliantly told in the full-bodied tome by Ted Hart. Harkin waged many a consistent struggle against developers, forestry department, hunters, miners and a burgeoning tourist industry as he navigated a none too easy pathway in expanding parks in Canada. There are those who argue he pandered too much to the business side of parks, others he did not do enough for them. But, Hart’s generously developed thesis walks the extra mile to place Harkin in his historic context, highlight the unsolved riddles of such a context and give the positive nod to Harkin where it is rightly due.

J.B. Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks is certainly worth the read if for no other reason than Harkin has been mostly forgotten today and yet many of our national parks are, now, his fully grown and mature children. Hart tells the graphic and poignant tale of Harkin’s fastidious life and work in 17 compelling and must read chapters (with a fine Introduction, also). Many are the superb photographs in the book that illuminate the text in a pleasantly balanced manner. If it had not been for Harkin’s commitment to national parks as a means of living in the preservation-conservation tension, a tension that irritated those who were either too far on the business-development right or wilderness-wildness left (an unsolved and unsolvable riddle in some ways), our park system would have been much different.

Harkin was inspired by those like John Muir and yet, as a civil servant, he had to implement such a vision in a pragmatic way—much more difficult than doing the advocacy work as Sierra Club does. The sheer strength of Hart’s book is the way he highlights, again and again, how Harkin threaded the needle wisely and well on many controversial issues, each chapter in the tome probing ever deeper into the political debates and personality clashes and tensions of each decade and year.

I have no doubt recommending this superb book for anyone interested in understanding the role Harkin played in the formation of Canada’s national parks and, equally so, how the issues he struggled to make sense of are as much with us today as they were with Harkin in his age and ethos.




J.B. Harkin: Father of Canadian National Parks by E.J. (Ted) Hart; University of Alberta Press: Edmonton, AB, 2010; ISBN 9780888645128, softcover, 592 pages; $16.00


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