A Great Land Waiting
If in 1920 you were looking for someone to introduce readers to the national parks of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, MB Williams would seem the unlikeliest of candidates. She had passed her fortieth birthday without ever visiting Western Canada, let alone its parks, and was not in the least bit outdoorsy. She also suffered from a poorly understood form of anemia, which periodically kept her bedridden for weeks and months at a time. Despite all this, Commissioner Harkin sent her out west to explore and write about the parks.
According to her niece Frances Girling, MB said that at the end of her first day horseback riding through Jasper National Park, she got off the horse and fainted. But Girling also told of taking a train through the Rockies herself, and the conductor regaling her with stories about a woman from Ottawa – MB – who, having never been on a horse before, rode the length and breadth of the mountain parks.
Williams’ timing in becoming an author of travel guides was impeccable. The early 1920s saw the rise of auto tourism and the parallel rise of government expenditure on tourism promotion. MB’s first guidebook, the 1921 Through the Heart of the Rockies and Selkirks, was the Branch’s first mass-market one, available to whoever wanted a copy. Approximately 100,000 copies of the book were printed in its first half-dozen years. It led to the equally successful 1923 The Banff-Windermere Highway, created for the road’s opening, and from there over the rest of the decade to Waterton Lakes National Park, Kootenay National Park and the Banff-Windermere Highway, Jasper National Park, Prince Albert National Park, Jasper Trails, and The Kicking Horse Trail. They are arguably the most distinctive and highest quality series of guidebooks Parks Canada ever issued.
MB’s guidebooks differ from what few preceding parks promotional guides there were, in that her writing seeks a relaxed, literary effect. Chapters begin with a quotation, linking the parks to noted thinkers. Williams not only discusses the park’s history and traces an area-by-area excursion to sites of interest throughout it, but also takes time to express how parks in general fulfill important social, spiritual, and environmental goals: her guidebooks are as much an advertisement for parks as for the individual park.
But what strikes today’s reader the most is the sense that all of the park was opened up for the visitor, and for the reader. Perhaps that speaks to the time when MB was writing: after the automobile had made the entire park, the entire country accessible to travelers, but before sufficient services and destinations had been established that regulated their travel. Or maybe it just speaks to MB’s skill as a writer. She would later use as an epigraph for Guardians of the Wild a quote by British socialist Edward Carpenter: “I see a great land waiting for its people to take possession of it.” The line could as easily describe how she promoted Canadian parks to tourists in the 1920s.
MB’s success writing travel guides changed her career, and her life. Whereas her salary had only risen from $1200 to $1300 in the 1910s, it jumped to $1560 the year she published Through the Heart of the Rockies and Selkirks, and to $2160 the next. Her job title shifted to “publicity assistant” and then “publicity agent.” She was soon overseeing much of the work in the Branch’s new Publicity Division, and when the agency started making travel and wildlife documentaries, she found she had a knack for matching pictures to prose, and penned the script for 50 films. But she never became “publicity director,” a title that would fall to JC Campbell. A 1928 letter suggests a certain bitterness to him. She had risen farther and faster than almost all female government employees, but she reached a ceiling.
When the Depression hit, many positions at the Parks Branch’s Ottawa office were lost. MB Williams’ job was likely safe, given both her seniority – she oversaw a considerable staff, including all of the women in the office – and the fact that she was good friends with Prime Minister RB Bennett’s family. But when her staff was laid off, she chose to join them. 1931 introduced a decade of great change for MB, just as 1911 and 1921 had.