This Week in History


Canada creates a National Park

This story was initially published in 1998

On June 23, 1887, the Rocky Mountains Park Act created Canada's first national park. When mineral hot springs were discovered in the Rocky Mountains four years earlier, speculators clamoured for a piece of a property which could make them rich! To retain public ownership, Sir John A. Macdonald's cabinet created a reserve area in 1885 around the hot springs. A government official predicted in 1886 that the hot springs "were to become the greatest and most successful health resort on the continent." Instead, they grew into Banff National Park and the system of national parks that is now found in every province and territory of Canada.

Main pool, Cave and Basin Springs, 1941

Main pool, Cave and Basin Springs, 1941
© Library and Archives Canada / PA 804026

From the start, the vision for this area included public use. The Canadian Pacific Railway offered a free train ride to the Pacific Coast to all members of the Senate and House of Commons, with a stop-over at Banff to visit the Hot Springs. The Prime Minister promised that the park would become a "public park and pleasure ground for the benefit, advantage and enjoyment of the people of Canada." But Macdonald also meant the park to become "useful" as soon as possible. For this reason, timber cutting, grazing and mineral development were permitted. Mineral claims were worked for almost a century.

Our modern concern with "ecological integrity" grew out of the early policy of protecting scenery so the park could survive as a prime tourist attraction. Regulations were passed in 1889 to protect forests and game, to control private construction and development, and to preserve natural beauty. Early park development favoured resort facilities, including development of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs. Later, natural resource programs were started. These included planting wild rice in shallow lakes and wetlands (sloughs) to encourage the propagation of migratory wildfowl, stocking lakes with fish, establishing a tree nursery to reforest areas damaged by railway construction or forest fires, and maintaining a fire guard to control fires from outside the park.

Banff National Park

Banff National Park
© Parks Canada

Rocky Mountains National Park, now Banff National Park, was the birthplace of Canada's national parks system, which now has 42 National Parks and National Park Reserves. Visitors to this national park will find several Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaques commemorating the region's rich history. Among these is a commemorative plaque at the Cave and Basin.

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