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British Columbia’s Magnificent Parks: The First 100 Years

By James D. Anderson

Review By J. Cronin

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 134-5

James D. Anderson’s British Columbia’s Magnificent Parks: The First 100 Years is a tribute to the first century of the Provincial Park system in BC. This thoroughly researched and richly illustrated history, sensitive to ongoing environmental and cultural issues, joins the growing list of titles chronicling the histories and legacies of “protected” landscapes within North America.

It is apt that both the book’s foreword (by Stephen Hume) and one of the opening chapters consider in detail the 1910 expedition that led to the founding of BC’s first provincial park, Strathcona. This tale not only captures the spirit of adventure that has defined these parks for the past 100 years but also emphasizes the multitude of perspectives and personalities characteristic of such ventures. Led by Price Ellison, the expedition was joined by an eclectic group of adventurers, including a photographer, a number of military men, Ellison’s daughter, and a chef. Their six-week expedition to the interior of Vancouver Island was a tremendously difficult trek made even more challenging by rough waters, treacherous trails, and swarms of insects. The group’s guide, Hugh Francis Bacon, the self-appointed “Lord of Vancouver Island” — an eccentric character with a little terrier called “Man” as a travelling companion and a penchant for reciting Kipling in logging bars — proved to be an excellent guide for the group even in the face of the difficult terrain. By all accounts, however, it was Ellison’s 20 year old daughter, Myra, who showed the most pluck and determination of the group and it was entirely fitting that she was given the honour of placing the Union Jack at the summit of Crown Mountain, symbolically marking what would become a key landmark within Strathcona Provincial Park (Myra Creek and Myra Falls are named after her).

The book opens with a discussion of the years following the founding of Strathcona Park in 1911 and devotes considerable emphasis to the legislative changes that allowed parks like Mount Robson (1913), Garibaldi (1927), Tweedsmuir (1938), to come into existence. Among the most notable legislation was an amendment to the Forest Act in 1939 that provided for the ranking the parks according to uses permitted within their borders. Under this system, a park that received an “A” status was awarded the “highest degree of protection from exploitation” (67), while activities such as mining could occur in parks with a “B” designation. This discussion also highlights just how much influence private industry had in the shaping of BC’s provincial parks. For example, Hamber Provincial Park (created in the Autumn of 1941) had originally been designated “Class A,” but within four short years that designation had been changed to a “B” thanks to pressure by the logging industry and the park was drastically reduced in size.

Subsequent chapters follow park development in the province through specific historical periods and trace evolving ways of thinking about the value of these spaces. From marine parks to historic parks, these landscapes encompass many different terrains and ways of interacting with the environment. This book offers fascinating insight into the shifting and diverse goals of BC parks over the years. While today many would see these parks as an important way of protecting flora, fauna, and landscapes deemed to be environmentally significant, this was not always the case. For example, in the post-war era, the government focused much more on providing such amenities as “picnic areas, lookouts, and roadside parks” for visitors in automobiles. A letter issued to forest rangers in the late 1940s underscores a much different perspective on the significance of BC provincial parks than exists today: “in a province as large and as rugged as BC, there is some question as to whether wilderness parks are necessary” (83). Such glimpses into the history of BC parks serve as an important reminder that these landscapes are not static or timeless entities: rather, they are shaped by dominant cultural ideas which themselves are also in flux.

This book is certainly a fitting tribute to the past 100 years of provincial park history. Anderson does a good job of situating the provincial park movement in BC alongside the national park movement (both in Canada and the USA), but this is a somewhat uncritical history. For example, while he notes that the lands around Hamber Provincial Park had traditionally been hunting grounds for the Beaver, Sikanni, Nahanni, and Dog Rib people (72), his discussion stops at this description. What was the situation for these First Nations people when this park was created? Were they still using this land? If so, did the creation of the park change their access to the land? I was very glad to see, however, that Anderson discusses contemporary First Nations rights and concerns regarding park land in a later chapter entitled “Approaching the Centennial, 2001 to 2011.”

In addition to expanding some of the critical discourse around the conception, use, and creation of park spaces in British Columbia, I would also like to see some more attention paid to the images. As mentioned above, this is a lavishly illustrated book and yet there is almost no discussion of the images themselves. Photographs are texts shaped by social, technological, environmental, and economic factors. They are never neutral documents and, as such, I find it troubling when they are treated as mere illustrations, support material for the written word. The way a landscape is depicted has far-reaching implications for the way it is valued and recognition of this aspect of park history would further strengthen this book.

British Columbia’s Magnificent Parks: The First 100 Years
by James D. Anderson
Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2011 $24.95