The World’s First National Parks Turn 100

What was the first country in the world to establish a national parks system?

Jasper National Park, Alberta. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you guessed the United States or a European country such as Austria, Switzerland, Norway, or Sweden you would be wrong.

This year, Parks Canada, the first national parks service in the world, celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Banff was discovered accidentally in 1883, when explorers fell through the roof of a cave into a warm, sulphur-water spring below. Sixteen miles around Sulphur Mountain and the Cave and Basin, were set aside as a National Park in 1885, predating Parks Canada by 26 years.

Other sites were added until 1911, when the Dominion Parks Branch of government was formed.

In 1911, when J.B. (Bunny) Harkin was appointed Canada’s first commissioner of national parks, he thought “the word park seemed a very small name for so great a thing.”

The number of visitors to the Canadian Rockies at mountain parks now known as Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier, and Waterton Lakes was increasing and the federal government felt it needed to protect the magnificence of the region.

Moraine Lake and Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park, Alberta. (Credit: Parks Canada)

“Wonder, reverence, the feeling that one is nearer the mystery of things—that is what one feels in places of such sublime beauty,” wrote Harkin.

Today, Parks Canada administers 42 national parks, 167 national historic sites, including nine canals, and four national marine conservation areas.

More than 4,500 wardens, guides, scientists, and interpreters employed by Parks Canada oversee more than 145,000 square miles of federal land.

One hundred eighty countries now have national parks. The first, in 1872 in the United States, was Yellowstone National Park, which was “too big and too beautiful to belong to any private individual,” according to one of its proponents.

The Parks Canada mandate has not changed: “Dedicated to the people of Canada, for their benefit, education and enjoyment … to leave unimpaired for future generations.”

The national parks were direct results of Canada’s first national railroad, the Canadian Pacific.

Visitors arrived by rail and stayed in hotels built by Canadian Pacific Railway.

“The idea was not conservation, it was tourism,” says Jonathan France, director of the historical research branch of Parks Canada. “The main objective was an economic one, to show a return on the significant public investment in building a transcontinental railway.”

Born in 1875 in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Harkin worked as a journalist and a political secretary before being named parks commissioner, which he remained until 1936.

Chateau Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta. (Credit:

He promoted national parks for outdoor recreation and as a source of valuable tourist dollars. He built roads for public access. But Harkin also developed the idea of conservation, noting that man “is constantly changing the face of nature, cutting and burning the forests, plowing up the wildflowers, killing off the wild animals and birds, damming and polluting rivers, draining and diverting lakes.”

In 1915, the agency designated three pronghorn antelope sanctuaries in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and in 1917 the Migratory Birds Protection Act was passed. This established protection of wildlife on federal lands as part of Parks’ mandate and led, among other initiatives, to the creation of Point Pelee National Park in southern Ontario.

In the 1920s, Harkin was often in conflict with business interests that wanted to exploit coal, timber, and water in parks, leading him to enshrine their inviolability in the 1930 National Parks Act.

Foreign emissaries began visiting Canada to study Harkin’s methods. By the time he retired in 1936, Harkin had built a system of 13 protected areas that touched nearly every province.

Recognized internationally as the Father of National Parks, he remains little-known in his homeland. A 16-page booklet, containing excerpts from Harkin’s notes, was posthumously published in 1957. The Origin and Meaning of the National Parks of Canada, a seminal and lyrical gem, closes with this: “Man is a restless animal. He is constantly changing the face of nature. Even the face of Canada has seen many changes in the last 50 years. What will it look like a hundred years from now?”

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Canada’s National Parks and its 100th anniversary.

Worth Pondering…
Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
— John Muir

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