With my free Parks Canada pass in hand, I have been looking forward to visiting a few favourites and a few new treasures this summer. Right now, though, I sit at home waiting for the weather to warm up and the flowers to bloom.
I was pleased, therefore, when I saw the University of Calgary Press had a book on the history of Parks Canada that was Open Access. It was through this book, A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011, that I discovered the fascinating history of M.B. Williams, the author of the first and most definitive series of guidebooks about Canada’s national parks.
M.B. (Mabel Bertha) Williams began her career as a file clerk in Ottawa where she spent her days cutting press clippings. When her boss at the Department of Interior, J.B. Harkin, had the opportunity to start a new department in charge of National Parks, he asked her to come to the Dominion Parks agency with him.
Within a decade, she was in charge of almost all the promotional material for the parks and had authored an amazing series of guidebooks that could be found in tens of thousands of Canadian households.
When the depression hit, her entire female staff was laid off. Even though her job was secure, M.B. quit in solidarity.
She struggled thereafter to find success as an author, publishing the first history of Parks Canada, Guardians of the Wild, with Thomas Nelson in 1936.
Looking through an archive of her work is amazing. I recall leafing through a well-worn copy of Jasper Trails as a child. It’s still a wonderful read today.
The audio clip below is an interview with MB much later where she explains how she went from clipping newspaper articles to writing the guidebooks and promotional material for Canada’s parks.
You can read all of the available guidebooks online at environmentandsociety.org, and the University of Calgary Press title is free to read here. Or just grab the chapter on MB Williams. It’s a short and fascinating read.