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A century of Parks Canada, 1911–2011 edited by Claire Elizabeth Campbell , University of Calgary Press , Calgary , 2011 , 447 pp. , paper $34.95 ( ISBN 9781552385265 )

A century of Parks Canada, 1911–2011 is an impressive collection of 14 essays that seek to chart the changing values, priorities, and controversies that have shaped Parks Canada over its now one hundred years of existence. Rather than an institutional history or ethnography of the organization, most of the chapters focus their attention on an individual park, offering a rich analysis of the trends and debates shaping that park during a particular time. Together these provide an engaging account of Canada's various and quite varied national parks. The chapters are insightful, well-researched, and a pleasure to read. The collection will be of interest to students, academics, and policy experts along with a general public interested in Canadian environmental politics, environmental history, and Canadian history more broadly.

In reconstructing the broader social, political, and economic background out of which the parks were developed and transformed, the authors adeptly show how the parks themselves are a prism through which these broader trends can be read. The text should be of particular interest to geographers and others interested in questions of space and place: the studies show how these trends reshape physical landscapes in equally material and symbolic ways to create spaces of leisure, “wilderness,” conservation, and economic development. One of the key lessons of the collection is that Canada's national parks are very much human creations. While not novel per se, this is a profoundly important insight, and one that unequivocally deserves attention in the Canadian context. Two chapters deserve particular consideration in this respect. Bradley shows that there is nothing “natural” about the creation of parks, nor their (unguaranteed) success, through his insightful retelling of the failure of British Columbia's Big Bend Country. Craig-Dupont similarly explores the fabricated nature of parks by brilliantly showing how the “wilderness” space of La Mauricie National Park was actively constructed out of a former industrial area.

The strength of the essays rests largely in their array of perspectives (coming from academics and representatives of Parks Canada itself) and their empirical richness. Several of the authors also add insightful theoretical perspectives. Though dealing with quite diverse landscapes, the authors engage with several common themes that nicely tie together the histories and political landscapes of the various parks, and hence of Parks Canada itself. These include the tension between use and preservation (see especially the chapters by Sandlos, Colpitts, Taylor, Dick); the controversial role of humans and non-leisure activities within the parks and related patterns of forced removals of certain populations (Rudin, Waiser, MacLaren, Martin, Neufeld); questions of state expertise and science in rationalizing space to create parks (Craig-Dupont, Langemann, Neufeld, Colpitts); tensions of scale, e.g., federal state interests versus local concerns and autonomy (Rudin, Waiser, Taylor); and the role of new transportation infrastructure in creating and “opening up” national parks and in generating ensuing controversies, especially around the ecological and aesthetic impacts of overuse (Sandlos, Bradley, Waiser, Colpitts, Neufeld, MacEacheron).

Of particular note are the historical and contemporary images liberally interwoven throughout the book, which help establish the feel of the parks and controversies at different times and locations. The images also illustrate how visual technologies like mapping and photography/postcards play important roles in creating the parks by producing a type of abstract, scientifically rationalized space and in “selling” these spaces of tourism and leisure to a public audience (see, for example, the chapters by Colpitts and Craig-Dupont).

While this is truly an impressive collection, I do have two criticisms. First, a major premise of the book is that Canadian national parks are significant for Canadian national identity and nation making (see pp. 2–3). Surprisingly, only a few of the authors (such as Campbell, Dick, and Neufeld) explicitly pick up on this point, and none explore it in any detail. Since the text largely seems to take it for granted that the parks are significant for Canadian nation building, we are left wondering, for instance, what vision or version of the nation is being produced through the development of national parks at different times. Also, with regard to the physical, cultural, and historical exclusion of First Nations from parks, the text bypasses the chance to investigate these spaces as vehicles of a profoundly colonial type of nation making. Second, I would have appreciated a greater attention to global trends in conservation, especially in the early part of the twentieth century, and how these helped shape the Dominion Parks Branch (the forerunner of Parks Canada) and the early parks themselves. Without this, we are not left with a clear understanding of what was, and to some extent still is, distinct about the Canadian experience.

Despite these critiques, A century of Parks Canada emerges as an impressive, engaging, and timely collection of essays that should be essential reading for scholars, environmental policy makers, and a general public interested in Canadian environmental history and politics.