James B. Harkin

Canadian environmentalist

1875   -   1955

country of citizenship: Canada
occupation: journalist, civil servant
award received: Persons of National Historic Significance

James B. Harkin (30 January 1875 – 27 January 1955), also known as the Father of National Parks, was a Canadian-born journalist turned bureaucrat with a passion for conservation but also widely renowned for his commodification of the Canadian landscape. Harkin began his career as a journalist under the umbrella of the Ottawa Journal and Montreal Herald, two conservative newspapers at the time, but soon through his persistence and prowess gained entry into civil service during his mid-twenties. Under the tutelage of some influential figures working for the Liberal Party of Canada, most notably Clifford Sifton and Frank Oliver, Harkin was able to acquire an appointment to be the first commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch in 1911. During his career, Harkin oversaw the establishment of national parks that include Elk Island, Mount Revelstoke, Point Pelee, Kootenay, Wood Buffalo, Prince Albert, Riding Mountain, Georgian Bay Islands and Cape Breton Highlands. On a fundamental level, Harkin's philosophy had two dominant components: the economic, which saw park lands in commercial terms, and the humanitarian which saw parks as being integral to the well-being of the human spirit on a physical, mental and moral level. In successfully bringing these two principles together in a symbiotic way, Harkin was able to facilitate the incredible growth of Canadian tourism and, at the same time, justify his conservationist goals.With an economic philosophy on parks development, Harkin led the Parks Branch into the business of selling Canadian scenery to tourists. Harkin identified the emergence of the automobile as a key component in driving tourism to Canada's national parks. Some notable commercial achievements Harkin made included motor vehicle legislation that permitted vehicles to enter parks, improvements of existing roads through parks, and major highway projects that connected more visitors to parks. His parks promotion strategy, favourable motor vehicle regulations, and improvements in accessibility notably increased tourism to Canada's national parks from 100,000 in 1921 to 550,000 in 1928. In 1935, following the rise of the Liberal Party, Parks Branch became consolidated with other departments and Harkin's career as commissioner came to an eventual end. Starting in the 1970s, some years after Harkin's death, many critiques of Harkin that cast him in an unfavourable light started surfacing. In particular, Harkin's lack of knowledge of his duties as commissioner, his alleged over-dependence on his staff, and his desire to employ men under the market minimum wage were quite controversial. Moreover, the creation of the Wood Buffalo National Park sparked huge debate with local indigenous groups and the rippling effects of that debate are still being dealt with today.
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