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Canada Creates World’s First National Parks Service

For the week of Monday May 16, 2011

On May 19, 1911, Canada established the Dominion Parks Branch, becoming the first country to form an organization of the kind. With a mandate to preserve the country’s natural and cultural heritage, the Parks Branch, known today as Parks Canada, encourages the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the best examples of Canada’s ecological and historical wealth.

Dominion Parks Commissioner J.B. Harkin, 1924
© Library and Archives Canada / Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Collection / PA-121371

Shrewd readers might insist the country’s first national parks were established well before 1911—and they would be absolutely correct! It is true that the park service only came into being a quarter-century after the creation of Canada’s first national park in Banff, Alberta. Banff and subsequent national parks such as Glacier and Jasper were managed at the time by the Department of the Interior. It was only in 1911, as the parks rose in popularity that Parliament passed the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act, legislation which formed the distinct Dominion Parks Branch headed by James Bernard Harkin.

During his 25 years as commissioner, Harkin prioritized the development of facilities and infrastructure to improve the public accessibility of national parks and oversaw the designation of Canada’s first national historic park, Fort Howe. He further pushed for the 1919 creation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, an advisory body responsible for the commemoration of sites, persons, and events of national historic significance, as well as the passage of the 1930 National Parks Act, which enshrined in law the protection of these national treasures.

The efforts of Harkin, his successors, and Parks Canada employees past and present have paid off. A hundred years later, Parks Canada administers a vast network of 167 national historic sites, 42 national parks, and four national marine conservation areas. And the parks system continues to enjoy prodigious growth. In the four years between 2006 and 2010, Canada designated national parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas totalling nearly 90,000 square kilometres—a 30 percent expansion! For this achievement, the World Wildlife Fund of Canada honoured the agency with a nomination for the prestigious Gift to the Earth award.

Help us celebrate our centennial! Visit one of our national parks, national historic sites, or national marine conservation areas and have a look at our Centennial webpage. For further information about Commissioner Harkin and his successors, visit Parks Canada’s Persons and Visionaries page and read the Guardian of Canada’s Heritage story in the This Week in History archives. For the full story of Canada’s first national park, see Banff National Park Celebrates 125 Years of Memorable Experiences!.

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