Parks Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

A Brief History of Canada's National Parks

Chapter 6
National Historic Parks and Heritage Canals


(Note: The text of this chapter was edited from a number of sources.)

Historic resources in Canada are scarce, often unique, non-renewable, tangible relics of man's past. They range from archaeological evidence of man's earliest presence on this continent to examples of recent architecture and technology; from archaeological specimens through documents and antiques to buildings and large tracts of land. All are in some measure creations of the human mind and hands, illustrations from the past which, if preserved, can benefit present and future generations. They are easily destroyed and, once gone, can never be replaced.

The protection of historic resources in Canada is a responsibility shared by different levels of government and accomplished in a variety of ways. Museums deal primarily with the collection, preservation, and display of cultural objects. National historic parks attempt to provide a realistic environment in which historic resources can be made accessible to the public in their original location and in an authentic setting. Canada's national historic parks and sites commemorate people, places, and events that have shaped our cultural heritage.

Interest in creating historic sites grew with the rise of nationalist sentiment at the end of the 19th century. A number of local groups successfully preserved some important historic buildings. The Montreal Antiquarian and Numismatic Society acquired the Chateau de Ramezay for a museum building in 1895, and Toronto historical groups fought successfully to save old Fort York from destruction. The federal government, in 1907, created the Quebec (later National) Battlefields Commission to develop and preserve the site of the 1759 "Battle of the Plains of Abraham." Having no structures of the period to work with, the Commission planned a landscape park with commemorative monuments.

Casemates of the King's Bastion
Casemates of the King's Bastion, Louisbourg National Historic Park, 1924

Dedication Ceremony
Dedication Ceremony for the Cairn at King's Bastion, Louisbourg National Historic Park, August 1926

Historic Sites and Monuments Board

In 1919, the federal government established the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to advise on implementing a national program of commemoration and preservation of historic sites. In early 1922, the first commemorative plaque approved by the Board was set in place on a cross at Port Dover, Ontario, marking the spot where, in 1670, a similar cross claimed sovereignty of the Lake Erie region in the name of Louis XIV. More than 900 plaques have since been erected, and some 75 national historic parks and major sites have been developed, on the Board's recommendations.

Until the 1930s, efforts at developing historic sites were largely confined to interpretive plaques. If historic ruins were present they were usually left unimproved, with minimal effort made to prevent further deterioration. It was considered that reconstruction or major restoration harmed the historical integrity of a site, and the scarcity of funds for expensive restoration projects no doubt encouraged this approach.

Several old forts controlled by the army were transferred to the National Parks Branch. Fort Anne, at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, was made a national historic park in 1917. Fort Beauséjour, New Brunswick; Fort Chambly, Quebec; and Fort Wellington, at Prescott, Ontario, were also preserved as national historic sites.

Preservation projects were rare, on the whole. The success of large restoration projects in the United States, particularly the reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s, was largely responsible for changing this attitude. Increased spending on public works during the Depression provided further stimulation. In the 1930s the Niagara Parks Commission, an agency of the Ontario government, undertook four significant historical projects, two of which, Fort George at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie, involved reconstructing fortifications. Later, the provincial and federal governments undertook the restoration of Fort Henry at Kingston, where much of the original fort remained intact. Interiors were furnished with period reproductions and historic artifacts.

The Fortress of Louisbourg

The largest reconstruction project undertaken was the Fortress of Louisbourg, near Sydney, Nova Scotia. In 1961, the Government of Canada began to rebuild part of the former French fortress, which had been demolished by the British in 1758. This involved reconstructing part of the old town as well as the fortifications. Today, interiors have been replicated and the site is interpreted by costumed guides who explain aspects of 18th-century life at Louisbourg.

Louisbourg was designated a national historic site in 1928, and a national historic park in 1940. During the 1930s some of its ruined buildings were outlined on the site, and a museum was built. There it all remained — a ruined fortress twice besieged and captured, a deserted town once the capital of a colony and home to more than 5,000 fishermen, soldiers, merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, bureaucrats, and their families; an archaeological townsite whose significance and potential for interpretation were unsurpassed in North America.

The initial reason for the reconstruction at Louisbourg was economic — the lessening demand for Cape Breton coal and threatening unemployment. A royal commission headed by the Hon. E.C. Rand investigated the matter and made some far-reaching recommendations, one of which was the development of tourism.

Tourism meant, among other things, doing something with the Fortress of Louisbourg. In 1960 the federal government authorized the beginning of a 25-million-dollar program to reconstruct one-fifth of the fortress and town and re-create a historical cross-section of military, maritime, commercial, administrative, and domestic pursuits as they had originally existed in Louisbourg.

"What could be more stimulating to the imagination or instructive to the mind," the Rand report concluded, "than a reconstruction that would give a comprehensive representation of the material and cultural forms set up in a strange land inviting settlement."

Louisbourg brings to the national park system a variety of natural and historic features that deserve presentation. Its 60 km2 include Atlantic coastline, salt marshes, and nesting places for numerous aquatic birds. Black Rock, a siege position which shows the remains of French attempts to demolish it, is also the most visible element of a geological sequence that extends back 500 million years, to the area's volcanic origin.

The marshy plain of Gabarus, which protected much of the landward front of the fortress, is shelter for deer and foxes, as well as a major example of bog vegetation. Kennington Cove, where the British fought their way ashore in an amphibious landing in 1758, has an excellent sandy beach and a small island that is a gathering place for seals. Freshwater Brook, which marks a line of British regimental campsites, houses a colony of beavers. The tall-stalked angelica, found only in the Louisbourg area, was introduced from Europe and descends from herbs once grown in the fortress.

Ultimately, the buildings at Louisbourg are synthetic — the same kind of facsimile historical district that the Europeans rebuilt in their ruined cities after World War II, and for the same reason — to recapture and preserve the spirit of the past. For such a purpose the buildings themselves, while they must be as accurate as possible, faithful in "line, level, and fabric" to historic sites policy, are primarily a point of departure, a physical setting in which to explain and encourage understanding of an earlier way of life. And that's conservation too, on a scale and in a style that some preservationists have yet to acknowledge.

Louisbourg is interesting as a more European, and possibly a more sophisticated, colony than Quebec; as a maritime and commercial centre whose fisheries far outweighed the fur trade in value; and as a culture increasingly distinct from that of the French hinterland.

The staff at Louisbourg are re-learning and demonstrating the trades, skills, attitudes, social customs, and values of an earlier and quite different culture. Those who visit the fortress seldom go away without an appreciation of the intangible elements in their heritage. Louisbourg offers that kind of cultural set-piece. It is a moment in time, and in its interpretation Parks is trying — and generally succeeding, it hopes — to make the fortress a valid experience for visitors and a benchmark in Canada's heritage.

The use of costumed animators is important, not because it is a "crowd pleaser" and an inducement to visit the site. Animation at Louisbourg aims not at demonstrating familiar frontier crafts, or firing guns, but at portraying the everyday life of a community.

Louisbourg continues to be the Government of Canada's most ambitious attempt to develop its historic resources. Along with the conservation and interpretation of some unique and significant aspects of Canada's physical heritage, it is preserving a vanquished culture and contributing to that "elevation of mind and spirit" envisioned by the Rand Report, not only for the people of Cape Breton but for all Canadians.1

Rapid Growth of Activity

By the mid-1950s, the federal government had turned its attention to 40 sites, 38 of which were complexes transferred from the military. In 1968, the Parks Branch was in the process of developing four major historic parks, but in the whole system not a single park had been fully developed.

The reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg and the addition of fur-trading posts, two lighthouses, and the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City broadened the national system and pointed to a coming explosion. Canadians were becoming more and more interested in their history. This was reflected over the next 10 years in an astonishing increase in park acquisitions. Many new historic parks and sites were acquired and developed, including Lower Fort Garry at Selkirk, Manitoba, the RCMP schooner St. Roch, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier House at Ville-des-Laurentides. This increased activity was reflected in the branch's budget. The historic park budget for 1953 had been $6.9 million; for 1963 it was $14.2 million; by 1973 it was $22.7 million; and by 1983 it had reached $63.3 million.

During this period, Parks Canada showed other forms of leadership. Preserving a historic site demands a great deal more than money: It demands a commitment to assembling a team of experts that will preserve a site with skill and integrity. Parks employs trained archaeologists, historians, architects, engineers, conservators, curators, and animators whose attention to detail and dedication meet the highest professional standards.

The Canadian Inventory of Historic Building

In the early 1970s Parks Canada launched a computerized stock-taking of the country's historic architectural resources. This inventory was designed to provide, in rapid retrieval form, data and comparative examples of architecture dating up to 1880 in eastern Canada and up to 1914 in western Canada.

The Canadian Inventory of Historic Building was a four-phase operation, which, in phase one, recorded 192,000 buildings. Technologically, the Inventory was the world's most advanced building survey system. The possibilities of the system were endless: It could be used to find the path of least resistance for a new highway or hydro line, to chart social patterns, to analyze economic history, or to study architecture. The Inventory was clearly intended to be more than a tool for Parks Canada alone; it could also be used by the provinces, municipal governments, urban planners, historians, and local preservationists.


The late 1960s marked the coming of cost-sharing projects in which sites were developed with funds provided by the federal government, provinces, municipalities, non-profit organizations, and the private sector. The Commissariat in St. John's, the Halifax Waterfront buildings, Papineau House in Montreal, Victoria Hall in Cobourg, Craigflower Manor in Victoria, and buildings in Dawson City were preserved through such agreements.

Policy on Federal Heritage Buildings

Parks Canada encouraged the Government of Canada, as the country's largest single owner of heritage properties, to renovate, restore, and recycle its own vintage buildings. An interdepartmental committee was established to coordinate the policies of the various departments and, in 1982, a formal policy statement defined the terms under which federal government agencies would maintain their own historic buildings.

Heritage Canals

In the early part of the 19th century, prior to the development of railroads and highways, British North America embarked on a period of canal-building. At Confederation, these important trade routes came under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

In 1972, responsibility for certain historic canals was transferred from the Department of Transport to Parks Canada. Today, the Parks Service administers the St. Peters Canal in Nova Scotia; the Chambly, Carillon, Ste. Anne, St. Ours, and Lachine canals in Quebec; and the Rideau, Trent-Severn, and Sault Ste. Marie canals in Ontario.

While the commercial role of the canals has diminished, their use as recreational waterways has increased tremendously. Heritage canals have taken on new significance as historic examples of Canadian engineering technology and as scenic corridors whose beauty and recreation opportunities are enjoyed by urban residents as well as by boaters.

Palace Grand Theatre
Palace Grand Theatre, Klondike National Historic Sites, Dawson City

Chaffey's Lock, Rideau Canal
Chaffey's Lock, Rideau Canal, 1905

Canadian Heritage Rivers

In Canada we still have rivers that flow through essentially natural environments, whose channels are unobstructed and whose waters are relatively unpolluted. Such rivers are outstanding examples of our natural heritage. Many have been a source of food and a means of transportation for native peoples and early settlers, and have played a significant role in the exploration, trade, and development of Canada. They are important elements of our natural and cultural heritage that should be preserved in an unspoiled state for the benefit of present and future generations.

The Canadian Heritage Rivers System is a co-operative program between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to give national recognition to the important rivers of Canada, and to ensure management of these rivers in ways that will conserve their natural, historical, and recreation values for the benefit and enjoyment of Canadians.

The first rivers to be designated as Canadian Heritage Rivers were the historic French River in Ontario and the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Reserve in the Yukon.

Chronology of Significant Events Relating to National Historic Parks and Sites

From Records of Parks Canada (RG84). Public Archives of Canada, General Inventory Series.

1914: Fort Tom Howe at Saint John, New Brunswick, was established as the first national historic park. The property was returned to the city in 1930 to be administered as a "civic park".

1917: Fort Anne, at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, was transferred from the control of the Department of Militia and Defence to the Department of the Interior. The 12-ha site, comprising the relics of the old fort, was designated a Dominion Historical Park.

1921: On recommendation of the Commissioner of Dominion Parks, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was established to develop a policy for historic sites in Canada and their relative historical value. The Board was to act in an advisory capacity to the department on the question of acquisition, promotion, and future development of historic and prehistoric sites of national importance. Its members, selected from experts in the field and prominent Canadian historians, reported to the federal government through the Dominion Parks Branch. The original members were E.A. Cruikshank (Chairman), Dr. James H. Coyne, Dr. Benjamin Sulte, Archdeacon W.O. Raymond, W.C. Milner, and J.B. Harkin. F.H.H. Williamson, the Deputy Commissioner of Dominion Parks, served as Secretary to the Board. The Board's first task was to undertake a national survey of existing historic sites and of their national importance. Louisbourg, the St. Maurice Forges, forts Chambly and Lennox, three sites in Huronia, and Fort Prince of Wales were among those which received special attention.

1922: Fort Prince of Wales, located at the mouth of the Churchill River, Manitoba, was set aside as an historic memorial site.

1928-1929: Most of the land included in the original site of the Fortress of Louisbourg was purchased from its owners by the National Parks Branch.

1941: A replica of the Port Royal Habitation of 1605 was officially opened to the public. It was the first major restoration project undertaken by the National Parks Branch.

1951: The Hudson's Bay Company donated legal title to Lower Fort Garry to the people of Canada and the federal government designated the fort a national historic park. The Department of National Defence transferred control of the Halifax Citadel for development as a national historic park.

1952: The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission) made several recommendations concerning the work of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, the most important of which were that the Board be reorganized and a statement of policy concerning its work adopted, and that emphasis be placed on preserving and restoring historic sites and buildings rather than on granting historical plaques.

1953: The Historic Sites and Monuments Act defined the powers of the Minister and of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board in relation to historic places. The Board was to advise the Minister on the acquisition and commemoration of historic places and on the establishment and operation of historical museums.

1959: Maillou House, an 18th-century house in Quebec City, was restored. It was the first building preserved for its architectural, as well as its historical, interest.

1961: A long-term program was launched to restore a portion of the Fortress of Louisbourg.

1961-1963: Major restoration projects were under taken to commemorate the Klondike Gold Rush. The Palace Grand Theatre, the S.S. Keno, the Discovery Claim on Bonanza Creek, and the original townsite of Dawson City were all declared national historic sites.

1967: Bellevue House, a Kingston home of the young Sir John A. Macdonald, was opened as a national historic park.

1969: The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park was officially opened.

1970: A memorandum of agreement was signed with the Government of Newfoundland for the development as national historic parks of L'Anse aux Meadows, site of an 11th-century Norse settlement, and Port-au-Choix, site of a Maritime Archaic Indian burial ground.

1972: Six canal systems that had outlived their commercial use, but were considered historically significant, were transferred to Parks Canada from the Department of Transport. They were the Richelieu River, Beauharnois, and Ottawa River canal systems in Quebec, the Rideau and Trent canal systems in Ontario, and the St. Peters Canal in Nova Scotia.

1974: The former RCMP vessel St. Roch, the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage in both directions, was officially opened to the public in Vancouver as a national historic site.

1976: Bethune House, the birthplace of Dr. Norman Bethune, in Gravenhurst, Ontario, was officially opened. The Department of External Affairs had purchased the house and turned it over to Parks Canada.

1977: The Historic Sites and Monuments Act was amended to provide for representation from the Yukon and the Northwest Territories on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board.

1978: The chairman, Marc Laterreur, and other members and staff of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada were killed in a plane crash while en route to a commemoration ceremony in Newfoundland.

1980: Riel House National Historic Site in St. Vital, Manitoba, was officially opened.

1982: A steamboat flotilla was one of nearly 500 events organized by communities between Kingston and Ottawa to mark the 150th anniversary of the Rideau Canal.

1984: The W.R. Motherwell Homestead, the farm and residence of one of Saskatchewan's early farming organizers, who later became federal Minister of Agriculture, was officially opened.

Chairmen (and Acting Chairmen) of The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada

1919-39 Brigadier-General E.A. Cruikshank

1940-42 Board did not meet

1943-49 Dr. Clarence Webster (New Brunswick)

1950-57 Dr. Fred Landon (Ontario)

1958-59 Father Antoine d'Eschambault (Manitoba)

1960-67 Dr. Bruce Fergusson (Nova Scotia)

1968-72 Mr. Allan Turner (Saskatchewan)

1973-78 Dr. Marc Laterreur (Quebec)

1978-80 Dr. Leslie Harris (Newfoundland)

1981-86 Dr. J.M.S. Careless (Ontario)

1986- Professor Thomas Symons (Ontario)


1. The paragraphs on Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park are taken from John Fortier, "Louisbourg Lives Again," Conservation Canada 2:3, 1976, pp. 3-7.

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