August 10th, 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of the opening of Prince Albert National Park. To honour the occasion today, I drank some delicious home-made lemonade at the Waskesiu Heritage Museum (as was served on opening day to visitors 90 years ago) and went to track down some historical photographs of the park. Here are a handful of postcards I found:
Then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie King came to dedicate Prince Albert National Park on August 10th and stayed in a rustic log cabin made especially for him (still standing on Prospect Point in Waskesiu). In his speeches, King spoke on the importance of nature and national parks to the well-being of the country:
“In the building of Canadian national life and in the moulding of our national character, it is of the utmost importance that we should cultivate an appreciation of all that is beautiful in our physical environment. In a young country so amply endowed with material resources there is always a danger that we may turn to the gods of the market place and sacrifice the beautiful on the altar of utility. . . It is indeed cause for deep satisfaction that Canada in her youth has learned the wisdom of conservation.”
Prime Minister Mackenzie King, quoted by Bill Waiser in Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince Albert National Park, 32.
Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.
Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.
While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:
Photographs taken after one of the last buffalo chases of the 1880s, right at the cusp of the collapse of bison populations. I reproduce one photo of an absolutely massive bull shows buffalo running horses in the background. The fact that it’s in black and white disguises the fact that the snow is stained by blood until you go looking for it. The image is so crisp you can see the texture of the fur on his hump.
One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.
I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.
When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.
Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.
We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.
It’s no secret that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Elk Island National Park’s history recently for work. One of the things that I could never quite wrap my head around is the motivations for the foundation of the park in 1906. Elk Island is one of the oldest national parks in Canada – it in fact predates the foundation of the more famous Jasper National Park by a year – and is the only remaining example of an “Animal Park,” founded as it was to protect one animal species (elk). Other national parks, like Banff, were considered “Scenic Parks,” founded to protect their beautiful scenery from logging and settlement and to encourage tourism. (The other two “animal parks” in Canada, incidentally, were Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) and Nemiskam National Antelope Park (1915-1947).) Elk Island has over a century of conservation history under its metaphorical belt, starting with the preservation of a small band of elk enclosed by a fence. But what motivated the creation of the only entirely fenced national park in Canada?
The basic outline of the story that I was always told by other park employees and in short trail guides from the 1980s was that Elk Island was founded by “five guys who put up a $5,000 bond.” I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what that meant. When pressed, colleagues explained to me vaguely that five conservation-minded men from Fort Saskatchewan asked the government to create a national park and pooled their resources to show that they were serious in their commitment, and that the government matched that $5,000. Not knowing much about Edwardian bonds or the financial situation of the Canadian government in 1906, and not knowing what the money was even for, I wasn’t sure if this made sense. I was really left with more questions than answers.
Doing a little digging, it turns out that those five men from Fort Saskatchewan were all members of a hunting club. I knew that middle- and upper-class hunters from settler communities were often involved in early conservation efforts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, largely because they wanted large game to be managed for their own benefit and protected from the being killed by local people (largely Aboriginal and/or poor) for subsistence. The early history of national parks in North America as a whole is riddled with stories like this: more privileged “visionaries” reserving tracts of land from those who lived on and used that land already. This interpretation fits with descriptions of the Fort Saskatchewan men being concerned that unnamed people would shoot the last remaining elk in the region.
I still didn’t quite understand what the $5,000 bond was, though. I then ran across this newspaper clipping on the foundation of the park in the May 6th, 1906 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (click to enlarge). The relevant paragraph is the following:
“It is known to all who are familiar with such matters in Alberta that practically the last of the elk . . . are contained in a band variously estimated from forty to one hundred which is at present making its stamping grounds in the Beaver Hills, to the east of Edmonton. As Mr. Walker explained, some of the residents of his constituency, being very desirous of preserving the band, approached the Minister of [the] Interior on the occasion of his recent visit to this city and asked that he lay the matter before the Government at Ottawa and induce them to build a fence around at tract of timber in that part of the country . . . known to be the haunt of the elk. The Minister of [the] Interior replied that the Government would not be very likely to undertake anything of the kind unless they had some guarantee that there would be a fair possibility to get the elk inside the fence after it had been built, whereupon the Fort Saskatchewan men offered to put up a cash bond of $5,000 as a guarantee that within ten days after the fence was built they would have at least twenty elk within this enclosure. The guarantee was considered an evidence of faith in the scheme that could not well be overlooked, and the minister promised to do what he could to have the land set aside for the purpose of a deer park fenced.”
And thus Elk Park was born.
Three sides of the fenced enclosure were built around Astotin Lake by volunteers, leaving the southern boundary open. Elk were driven into this area, and the fourth fence constructed soon after, enclosing a grand total of about 24 elk in June 1907. After that point the five men were “released” from their bond as they had fulfilled their obligations.
Now, I interpret this incident almost as if it were a formalized “bet”: the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, didn’t believe that it was feasible to enclose this band of elk. The residents of Fort Saskatchewan disagreed. $5,000 was put forward by five men as a guarantee that they was serious about protecting these elk, and Oliver would set aside land for them to try to enclose the animals. If the five men were right, Oliver would make the fenced enclosure officially a national park (or protected game reserve). The residents, in the end, succeeded, and Elk Park was quietly managed as if it were a national park until it was officially designated one under the Dominion Parks Act in 1913. That does of course make me wonder, though: what if they’d failed to enclose the elk? Would “Elk Park” have been quietly re-absorbed into the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve from which it was carved out?
Regardless, the narrative of “far sighted, visionary conservationists” founding the park in 1906 never sat well with me. It always seemed like an idealization of the past or a romanticize of its founders. It’s a truism that people do things for selfish reasons. More research into this specific situation bore this assumption of mine out. It appears that one of the five men, a Mr. Lees, was awarded two contracts totalling $13,800 in 1906 to construct that fence. (Fence posts and wire are expensive.) He more than made up his temporary investment of a portion of that $5,000 bond.
But see, the thing is: just because national parks were founded for quote-unquote “selfish” reasons does not negate the century-long conservation legacy that came afterwards. Origins are not destiny. I think that telling a more nuanced, “warts and all” story is far more fascinating and provides a deeper understanding than a glossy soundbite about historical “visionaries”. Whatever their intentions – be it personal profit, a desire to reserve those elk for their own hunts, or an actual desire to see elk protected from harm at the hands of human beings – those five men did secure the protection of the last remaining significant elk herd in the Edmonton area, and the park that they helped to found went on to play a huge role in preserving plains and wood bison from extinction in the future. And that’s worth celebrating.