This Week in History


James Bernard Harkin – A Guardian of Canada's Heritage

For the week of Monday January 29, 2007

On January 30, 1875, James Bernard Harkin, the founding father of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) was born in Vankleek Hill, Ontario.

James Bernard Harkin
James Bernard Harkin
© Courtesy of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
Harkin began his career as a journalist in Montréal. He gained employment at the Ottawa Journal in 1893 and soon became the city editor. Soon thereafter, his editor recommended him for the position of private secretary to the Minister of the Interior, a position he held from 1901 to 1911.

In April 1911, Harkin became the first commissioner of the Dominion Parks. As commissioner, his impact on Canada’s national park system was profound. During his tenure, he oversaw the expansion of the national park system from its base of five national parks in the mountains, to 18 national parks. He also oversaw the significant expansion of Banff, Jasper and Waterton Lakes national parks, which were reduced considerably before his appointment. To finance the expansion and protection of national parks, he promoted their tourism value, while ensuring they were not overdeveloped. Part of his vision was to remove industrial development from national parks, which he achieved in 1930 when Parliament passed the National Parks Act.

HSMBC plaque commemorating Harkin, located in Banff National Park
HSMBC plaque commemorating Harkin in Banff National Park
© Parks Canada / R. Lavoie / 1999
Harkin’s interests extended beyond natural heritage to cultural heritage. In order to preserve and mark places that were of significance to Canadian history, Harkin established the Historic Landmarks Association of Canada in 1907. Its original mandate was limited to aiding in the commemorations of the Quebec Tercentenary celebrations in 1908. This Association, however, continued to exist until 1922, when it was transformed into the Canadian Historical Association, of which Harkin was a member. In 1919, Harkin proposed that an advisory board comprised of experts in various fields of Canadian history be established to advise the Government of Canada on the designation of sites, people and events of national historic significance. This would become known as the HSMBC, which held its first meeting on October 28, 1919, with Ernest Cruikshank as chairman.

Harkin died on January 27, 1955. His namesake Mount Harkin, within Kootenay National Park, preserves his legacy. This 2 979-metre mountain overlooks one of his crowning achievements, the Banff-Windermere Highway, and is marked by a commemorative HSMBC plaque.

In honour of his dedication and achievements, James Bernard Harkin became a National Historic Person in 1955 and, in 1972, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society inaugurated the awarding of its Harkin Medal to individuals who are similarly dedicated to protecting Canada’s natural heritage.

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