Parks Canada
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A Brief History of Canada's National Parks


The wind was glacier cold and the temperature minus 15 at Tanquary Fjord on 20 September 1986 when with Tagak Curley, Minister of Economic Development and Tourism for the Northwest Territories, I signed an agreement to establish the Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve.

I was, literally, on top of the world — a few hundred kilometres from the North Pole, surrounded by the austere mountains of the Canadian Arctic, proud to be taking part in establishing a new national park, one of the most northern anywhere in the world.

Signing the agreement for Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve
Signing the agreement for Ellesmere Island National Park Reserve: Hon. Tom McMillan, Hon. Tagak Curley, Chief Superintendent Bob Head, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Of all the wonders of Canada's national parks, perhaps none is more astonishing than the fact that they exist at all. Today, they are so much a part of our way of life that it is easy to forget they did not always exist. They were willed into being in 1885, when the government of Sir John A. Macdonald passed Order-in-Council 2197, which vested in the Crown all rights to 26 square kilometres of land at the Banff Hot Springs. Eighteen months later, the Parliament of the young nation took an even bolder step when it passed the Rocky Mountains Park Act, which established the world's third national park system.

Once begun, the idea of creating national parks excited Canadians: almost immediately, the government reserved thousands of square kilometres of land for future park use. But I doubt that even Sir John A., with all his vision and his confidence in Canada's future, could have foreseen the legacy he was creating.

Today, in addition to 75 historic sites and nine heritage canals, we have 32 national parks, ranging from a group of islands in the St. Lawrence River that total less than five square kilometres, to the splendour of Wood Buffalo, almost 45,000 square kilometres. Taken together, Canada's national parks offer an impressive range of experiences — whether the isolated grandeur of Nahanni National Park Reserve or the friendly accessibility of Prince Edward Island National Park, in my own home province. As the Minister responsible for ensuring the integrity of Canada's national parks, my job is to act as trustee on behalf of their real landlords, the people of Canada.

Our challenge is to discover ways of conserving the pristine beauty of the park while, at the same time, permitting them to be used to amuse, inform, train, delight, comfort, and even inspire, people, especially our youth. Otherwise, who will care about our parks today? And who will learn to care for them tomorrow?

Parks are not a frill, peripheral to the Canadian experience. They are in its very marrow. That fact lends special poignancy to the words of a native elder at a Royal Commission hearing several years ago. "We did not inherit the land from our forefathers," he said, "We hold it in trust for our children." This brief history of Canada's national parks is an important contribution to our appreciation of that trust.

The chronicle of the growth of the national park system that we know today will be a valuable reference for all those who share the desire to preserve our national parks for the people of Canada — for their benefit, education, and enjoyment, to be maintained and made use of in a way that leaves them unimpaired for future generations.

The author, W. Fergus Lothian, has drawn on his own experience and knowledge, acquired during almost 40 years as a Parks employee, and on the records and recollections of other employees, past and present. His story records the adventures and achievements of those who leave a heritage that can be cherished by all Canadians.

Tom McMillan, P.C., M.P.,
Minister of the Environment

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