The Making of Gatineau Park


Archaeological evidence indicates that Algonquin people settled in the Ottawa Valley about 4000 years ago. For millennia, ecosystems evolved naturally; this changed with the coming of Europeans. Samuel de Champlain and other French explorers arrived in the early 1600s, soon followed by trappers and fur traders. The 1800s brought huge changes to the Gatineau Hills ecosystems: the forests were extensively logged, roads were built, land was cleared for farming, and mines were dug. As the population of the region grew, so did public concern about deforestation.

Historical records indicate considerable interest in creating a park in the Gatineau Hills from the early 1900s. In his influential 1903 development plan for the Ottawa region, noted landscape architect Frederick Todd proposed a natural park. James Harkin, the first director of the newly-created Dominion Parks Branch, proposed in 1913 that Gatineau Park become Canada's first national park beyond the Rocky Mountains! In 1915 Sir Her bert Holt, chair of the Federal Plan Commission, prepared a report urging the establishment of a wilderness park in the Gatineau Hills.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's tenth and longest-serving prime min ister, was a key player in the creation of Gatineau Park. Between 1903 and 1927 he purchased 231 hectares of land around Kingsmere Lake to create his private summer estate. Although there was growing public interest in conservation, it had become more difficult to establish national parks due to landowner con cerns and the need for federal-provincial agreement. However, in 1927 King's government established the Federal District Commission (FDC), with powers to purchase land to create a public park in the Gatineau Hills.

During the Great Depression large numbers of hardwoods were felled for firewood, and fires raged through the hills. One very concerned resident was Percy Sparks, an officer of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League, who lead a successful lobby against the rampant deforestation. He later became the chair of the FDC's Gatineau Park Advisory Committee which sustained inter est in creating a park through the 1930s and beyond.

Perhaps the most significant day in the history of Gatineau Park was July 1, 1938 when the MacKenzie King government gave royal assent to an appropriation of $100,000 "for the acquisition of land and surveys in connection with the national parkway in the Gatineau Valley adjacent to Ottawa." This is believed to be the date when the creation of Gatineau Park began, as it started the process of assembling most of the publicly owned land that we have today.

Upon his death in 1950, King bequeathed his property at Kingsmere to Canada, for "a public park for the citizens of Canada ...[to] be maintained as nearly as possible in their present state, that they will be developed as parkland, and they will form a wildlife sanctuary, and will continue to have the character of a natural forest reserve." The Mackenzie King Estate became a core element of Gatineau Park.

In 1950 urban planner Jacques Gréber produced his authoritative report, A Plan for the National Capital. Gréber was influenced by Percy Sparks, and his plan included many ideas from the Gatineau Park Advisory Committee. The two most important recommendations were that Gatineau Park's area should be expanded to 330 km2, and the park should be a public rather than a private reserve. Both recommendations were approved.

In 1958 a large portfolio of federally owned lands in the Ottawa-Gatineau region including Gatineau Park were placed under the control of the National Capital Commission (NCC). The NCC is a federal Crown corporation that operates at arm's length from the federal government. Gatineau Park is managed much the same as other lands under the NCC's mandate. The National Capital Act gives the NCC sweeping powers to manage, develop and even sell public lands as it sees fit.

Gatineau Park's tentative status and the incremental development within its boundaries, have long concerned conservationists and area residents. The Ottawa Valley chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), then the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada, was formed in 1970 in response to a plan for Gatineau Park that reversed decades of policy aimed at preserving the park. The concerted efforts of CPAWS and others were instrumental in halting this plan. CPAWS continues to push for legislation which would create Gatineau Park in the legal context, define the boundaries of the park, and protect its ecological integrity.

Even though Gatineau Park still does not have full legal status as a protected area, over the past century it has gained this status in the mind of the public. All Canadians expect Gatineau Park to be treated as though it were a national park, and managed with the same degree of diligence.

*from Gatineau Park: A Threatened Treasure