MB: living and writing the early days of parks canada

Everything After


    Guardians of the Wild (Guidebook)MB's involvement with Grey Owl’s 1936 speaking tour revived her interest in Canadian national parks, and she published a short article about them. It also got her talking to the London publishers Thomas Nelson & Sons, who were putting out a book on Grey Owl. Would they be interested in a book about Canada’s national parks? The publisher accepted in April – and asked for the manuscript by end of June. MB fretted to AB Buckley that summer about writer’s block, but nonetheless in the space of just five months she wrote and saw to publication the first history of Canada’s national parks and its Parks Branch.

    Guardians of the Wild opens with the rain beating down on an Ottawa office window in September 1911, and an unnamed “Commissioner” – who would prove to have the vision and the prescience of the Creator – contemplating the responsibility of having a 7500-square-mile kingdom under his control, 1000s of miles away. It goes on to discuss how the parks came about, what they do for people and for nature, and what the Parks Branch had accomplished in its first quarter-century. Williams’ book never betrays her own role in the history of the parks system. Guardians of the Wild earned good reviews, including a radio review transcript which JB Harkin sent her. Another reviewer noted that Harkin himself cited Williams as being “an inspiring and dominant factor in the works of the Parks Branch for some twenty years.” Williams received many notes of congratulation, including two from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. In the second, he apologizes for taking a whole two weeks to reply personally to Williams’ letter, saying it “dropped out of sight at the time of ‘the constitutional crisis’.” This truly was a different era.

    Williams and Herridge returned to Canada for good just before the war. At some point, MB alone moved to London, Ontario to take care of her mother, although she and Herridge remained close. MB moved to Vancouver following her mother’s death, but in 1949 returned to London, Ontario to live with her brother after his wife’s death. During this long period, she continued to write – vigorously researching book projects on subjects as diverse as David Thompson and Carl Jung – but as a career it went nowhere. At the suggestion of Saskatoon publisher H.R. Larson, she drove through the Rockies for research – at almost 70 years of age – and reworked some of her old guidebooks as The Heart of the Rockies (1947), The Banff-Jasper Highway (1948), and Jasper National Park (1949). Larson also helped MB in compiling and publishing JB Harkin’s papers posthumously as The History and Meaning of the National Parks of Canada (1957). It is as if only when writing about the national parks that she had the passion and commitment to see things through.

    MB Williams died in 1972. Only 20 of her 94 years had involved working in the national parks system - this website, and the documents which comprise it, can hardly claim to have captured her life. And yet in the oral interview that she gave her niece Ruth (“Rufus”) when over 90 years old, it is those years with the Parks Branch which continually draw her back, and which make her sound so young. Working alongside Harkin to figure out how to justify parks to Parliament. Travelling with Marius Barbeau to see the “last” potlatch. Laughing at the “hardship” of staying in a luxurious cabin at Jasper.

    MB opened Guardians of the Wild with Edward Carpenter's line, "I see a great land waiting for its own people to come and take possession of it." Her Parks Branch work helped Canadians take possession of Canada, but it helped her take possession of her country, too.

    Explore the original materials

    National Parks and Sanctuaries in Canada
    John Hampden, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Publishers, to M.B. Williams, 1936
    M.B. Williams to A.B. Buckley, 1936
    Guardians of the Wild (Guidebook)
    J.B. Harkin to M.B. Williams, 1937
    Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to M.B. Williams, 1936
    Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to M.B. Williams, 1936
    The Banff-Jasper Highway (Guidebook)
    M.B. Williams Interview (1969-1970)