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James Bernard Harkin, Person of National Historic Significance

James Bernard Harkin
James Bernard Harkin
© Yousef Karsh, Courtesy of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

James Bernard Harkin was recognized as a person of national historic significance in 1955 for his role as the first commissioner of the National Parks of Canada and for establishing the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Early Life

Born in 1875, JB Harkin worked as a newspaper journalist as well as political secretary to Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, before accepting the task of forming a national parks service in 1911. At that time, the idea of protecting significant ecosystems was relatively new and protected areas included the mountain parks now known as Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Waterton Lakes.

Changing the Face of Conservation

As the first Commissioner of the National Parks of Canada, Harkin is known to many as "the Father of National Parks." He developed the idea of conservation in Canada, established standards for preservation, created a centralized agency to administer the parks and helped draft the National Parks Act of 1930. Commissioner from 1911 to 1936, Harkin built a system of protected areas that touched almost every province in Canada, creating 13 new protected areas. His model of what a national park should be was world-class, attracting emissaries from abroad to study his methods.

Tourism in the Parks

Harkin promoted conservation as well as enjoyment of the parks, encouraging visitors to experience their surroundings. Believing it was good for health and vitality, Harkin promoted the parks as a place where people could enjoy some of Canada’s best scenery while contributing valuable dollars to the economy. Building programs soon added roads and the facilities necessary to attract tourists, which in turn secured appropriations from the government. In 1923, he opened the first road built across the Rockies, the Banff Windermere Highway. By 1940, the completion of the Banff-Jasper Highway provided increased access for tourists. The largest project undertaken by the National Parks Branch prior to 1940, the new highways attracted international automobile traffic.

Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

Harkin, known for his contribution to the conservation of parks, also founded the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Established in 1919, the HSMBC is an advisory board with representatives from all provinces and territories, which reviews submissions and advises the Minister of the Environment on the significance of each proposal. To be considered, a site, person or event will have had a nationally significant effect on, or illustrate a nationally important aspect of the history of Canada. Any Canadian can submit a candidate to the HSMBC for consideration.

Fast Fact:

Named in JB Harkin’s honour, the Harkin Conservation Award pays tribute to individuals who have demonstrated a lifelong contribution to the conservation of Canada’s parks and wilderness through words and deeds. Recipients of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) award, founded in 1972, are presented with the J.B. Harkin Medal.

Fast Fact:

Named after JB Harkin, Mount Harkin stands at 2980m (9777ft.) above sea level and is located in Kootenay National Park in the Mitchell Range.

Fast Fact:

JB Harkin’s nickname was ‘Bunny’ Harkin

Plaque Text:

(1875 1955)
Born in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Harkin was named Commissioner of the recently created Dominion Parks Branch in 1911, and over a period of 25 years organized a nation-wide system of parks. A firm believer in the recreational and economic value of parkland, he directed his efforts to ensure access to the system for the greatest possible number of Canadians. Harkin was an ardent conservationist who was responsible for important advances in the field of wildlife preservation. On his advice the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was created in 1919, and he was one of its original members.


“J.B. HARKIN--First Commissioner of the National Parks of Canada, 1911-36,” Parks Canada Unpublished Fact Sheet

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, “Harkin Award"