Reviews / Comptes rendus - C.J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites

Reviews / Comptes rendus

C.J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites

Daniel T. Gallacher
Canadian Museum of Civilization
Taylor, C. J. Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990. 288 pp., 16 illus. cloth $32.95, ISBN 0-7735-0713-2.

1 In searching for our national identity, Canadians have long seen the vital need for historical preservation. The growth of official involvement in this movement, and the means whereby the federal government in particular has satisfied public demand, is the subject of this scholarly narrative. In scope it covers the period 1880 to 1980 and, as the title implies, describes and analyzes the rise of an important national organization. An historian with the Canadian Parks Service, C. J. Taylor has an insider's point of view which adds spice and sympathy to his observations on how the programme evolved. Yet he has avoided any narrow official version of the historic parks apparatus, for his approach rests as equally upon political considerations as on the bureaucratic features he outlines so well.

2 Over this period two key issues plagued the national historic sites movement. Foremost was how to distinguish national from regional significance; second was whether to reconstruct or merely commemorate a site. Taylor's thesis is that politics rather than any objective, systematic methodology became the basis for selecting or developing properties across Canada. Most of his volume deals with this theme, and while there are many references to specific historic sites, their nature, and how they became part of the national parks system, his main focus is upon the policy or organizational difficulties faced by the leading advocates of preservation. Thus its value to the material historian is mainly as background instead of being technically or curatorially instructive.

3 At the root of Canadian heritage sites recognition before 1905 were both imperialists who urged the commemoration of United Empire Loyalist activities and nationalists who promoted recognition of events that inferred ties between the regions. Each enlisted the Royal Society of Canada or other bodies to help shape government opinion, but the movement was elitist, often divided, and unable to move much beyond political or military subjects. Quebec was an exception.

4 By 1923 the federal government had committed itself to organizing and supporting a process of preserving and interpreting sites or events, but the effectiveness of its programme was still slight. That year only one per cent of the Parks budget went to historic sites, and since there was tremendous emphasis on developing Banff and other vast areas for tourism and nature conservation, new strategies for historical preservation were needed. An approach that cost little was to simply mark a site by a cairn or plaque. Such commemorative activity was preferred by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board and its chairman, Brig.-Gen. E. A. Cruickshank. Of the three bodies that ultimately shaped the system, the board was the most reflective of public opinion, yet the least influential in developing actual sites. The "executive" or ministerial level aimed usually at economic benefits while the administrative arm (or government branch) sought ways to control the proliferation of sites and the means to manage those that became its responsibility.

5 The system did not lack for leadership. Clifford Sifton, Arthur Meighen, Arthur Laing, and other powerful ministers took direct interest in historic sites during the time each oversaw the national parks system. Admittedly their emphasis was on regional economic development or national unity as might be served through the rise of historic parks, but their attention nonetheless furthered the system's growth and importance. Perhaps more influential were senior bureaucrats like James Harkin and E. A. Côté who were the linchpins holding the executive, branch, and board together. Harkin, a dynamic proponent of heritage conservation, headed the administration between 1919 and 1936. Largely through his vision and efforts there arose a "national chain" of large-scale and popular sites that otherwise would have been a burden for other departments to manage. The old forts at Louisbourg, Halifax, Quebec, Churchill, and Esquimalt were incorporated into the system and became candidates for 1930s make-work projects. Côté, Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources by 1963, carefully monitored the nature and growth of the Branch's responsibilities. Earlier he had sensed how Louisbourg would be reconstructed and had been instrumental in deciding the course of other key sites. Thoroughly professional and highly experienced, Côté was the ideal senior official to steer the federal system during its period of greatest growth.

6 Because government had undertaken to develop, manage, and interpret the system of historic sites, the Board was confined increasingly to an advisory role. By the 1950s its character had shifted from antiquarian to academic. Archivists and university scholars had been replacing long-tenured amateur historians. Another reform was to appoint at least one member from each province. The board's original difficulties in finding definitions for national significance were ultimately resolved by accepting sites or events of particular regional importance and claiming that such an array constituted a coherent whole. Nor did the new breed of members seriously attempt to resolve the debate on site reconstructions; they left that for the branch's experts.

7 Taylor's account of the programme at its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s is thorough and exciting to read. He demonstrates clearly how each of the three arms acted in unison to finally create the nation-wide system envisioned by Harkin and others. For its treatment of ideas on the Canadian identity, this book is a key contribution to our intellectual history.

8 Negotiating the Past is also significant for the detailed description and sound analysis it brings to our understanding of how our national historic sites and parks system evolved. Taylor plainly reveals the interactions between government experts and their counterparts in the outside history community over time. One could wish for a summary of the rise of the provincial historic sites systems as a comparison, but its absence does not weaken this valuable contribution to our knowledge of federal government agencies or the heritage preservation movement in Canada.