• Photo: Parks Canada
    Photo: Parks Canada

A century ago, with little notice and even less fanfare, the world’s first national park service was created by an act of parliament in Ottawa. While national parks had already existed for decades in both Canada and the United States, their management was a disorganized patchwork.

Banff, Canada’s oldest national park, originated in an 1885 decision by the federal government to preserve 26 square kilometres around Sulphur Mountain’s hot springs in the Canadian Rockies. From there, the idea of setting aside picturesque wilderness lands from settlement and development caught on like wildfire with both politicians and the public, and not only were Banff’s borders greatly enlarged, but a string of new national parks soon followed: Yoho (1886), Glacier (1886) and Waterton Lakes (1895).

Concerned with rapidly dwindling big game, the Canadian government also began establishing protected reserves for bison and elk in western Canada. However, it became clear that making parks required more than just drawing lines on a map. An organized department was needed to protect and manage them. So, in 1911, Wilfrid Laurier’s government passed the Dominion Forest Reserves and Parks Act, which created the Dominion Parks Branch.

Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle
What makes Canada’s parks so special? Find out in an interview with Parks Canada CEO Alan Latourelle. (Photo: Frédéric Baril/Parks Canada)

The Parks Branch became the first service of its kind in the world, and under the leadership of its pioneering director, former journalist J. B. Harkin, it would expand to include historic sites, such as Nova Scotia’s Fort Anne and parks in every corner of the country.

As with any organization, there were growing pains. In the early days, park wardens spent much of their time killing wildlife (wolves and cougars were especially vilified). And nasty battles occasionally cropped up with local residents over appropriating land. On other occasions, locals became indignant when new parks weren’t as large as originally proposed.  But the agency’s successes outweighed its failures, and under Harkin’s determined leadership — he had become a passionate believer in wilderness preservation — the Parks Branch and its national parks and historic sites blossomed into cherished symbols of Canada.

Known today as Parks Canada, the agency continues to protect our natural and human heritage, and now manages and oversees 42 national parks, four national marine parks and more than 150 historic sites.

While there may have been little notice and fanfare when Canada’s national park service was born, this month Canadian Geographic celebrates Parks Canada’s centennial with a look at what the future holds for these emblems of our natural riches.