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The Gatineau Park Chronicles

From The Gatineau Park Chronicle Fall 2007 issue.

The Prime Minister Is on "Our Side"!

Text by Denis Messier

On May 23, 1926, in reference to the forests surrounding his estate at Kingsmere, William Lyon Mackenzie King wrote in his diary:

...took a long walk out on the moor and through the woods. It breaks one's heart the way the forests round about are being thinned out and cut down. Were l a wealthy man I would purchase them outright. Had I a majority in Parliament, l would expropriate them for the State.
The Gatineau Park Chronicles
The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King - Library and Archives Canada.

This quote illustrates that logging in the hills was not a phenomenon linked essentially to the Depression of the 1930s, as many have claimed, but rather that it seemed to be a continuation of the logging operations that had begun a century earlier.This quote also clearly reveals that King was one of the first cottage residents to take up the cause of preserving the forests of the Gatineau Hills and creating a park.

That same year (1926), another event clearly illustrated King's vision and personal commitment to creating a park in the Gatineau Hills. At that time, a plan to build a dam on the Gatineau River required that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) lines be relocated away from the banks of the river. King stressed to the president of the CPR, as well as to other government officials,that the railway company should free up and reserve a large enough strip of land between the river and the railway line to build a scenic route, which was linked to the plan for a federal park that King was already considering.

spent some time writing the Chairman of the Railroad Commission re not permitting C.P.R. in reconstructing [the] railroad to take the shoreline by the river and dams, but rather to require the road to go inland so as to preserve water front for summer residences and motor driveway, outlining the possibility of a Federal Park along the Gatineau route. My feeling is this is the time to prevent an impediment to the later development and to begin the National Park idea. I wrote all the Commissioners, also Beatty C.P.R. President, Premier Taschereau, Mr. Perron, [the] Minister of Roads of [the] Quebec Government. I got consent of our Cabinet as a whole to make headway in the matter.
(April 26, 1926)

The opportunity to gain a majority - although a narrow one - came a few months later, when his party won the general elections in September 1926. The following year, King established the Federal District Commission, with the mandate of developing federal lands on both sides of the Ottawa River. As chair of this commission,he appointed Thomas Ahearn, one of the wealthiest and most influential industrial entrepreneurs in Ottawa.

On April 6, 1927, during the House of Commons debates on the subject, Prime Minister King, in denying that he was using the opportunity of establishing the Federal District Commission to create a national park in the Gatineau Hills, also unequivocally stated his view on the issue of establishing a park.

I have seen some mention in the press that this bill would include provision for a national park. That is an idea entirely separate; it has nothing to do with the present measure at all. I want to make that clear. I should like to say, however, that I do think a national park in the vicinity of Ottawa is something that is very much in the public interest, and that provision should be made for it at once, but that has nothing to do with this particular measure.

Following the example of the founding of Prince Albert National Park, which was established in 1927 in the constituency King represented in the House of Commons (7 out of 38 national parks in Canada were created under the governments led by William Lyon Mackenzie King), the Prime Minister became an avid promoter of the creation of a park in the hills of the Outaouais, where he himself owned a substantial area of land and where he had been spending all of his summers since 1900. However, the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and devastated the economy, pushed King out of power and delayed the completion of several projects.

From 1930 to 1935, King was leader of the opposition, and he spent a great deal of his time developing his estate at Kingsmere. Like many other cottagers in the Gatineau Hills, he felt anxious about the increased logging taking place around the lakes. On September 20, 1933, during a dinner at Moorside with his former chief private secretary, Harry Baldwin (grandson of Robert Baldwin, reform prime minister during the union of Upper and Lower Canada), who also owned a cottage in the hills, the idea came up to create a pressure group for the preservation of nature around the Capital region.

Harry Baldwin came out to dinner - we talked of starting a Society 'to preserve the Natural Beauty of the environs of Ottawa' - that was the suggested title I gave it, growing out of his wish to bring pressure on Quebec and federal governments to save the roadsides, their fringe of trees, etc. It is a splendid idea.

Thus was born the idea for the Federal Woodlands Preservation League, which was created in 1934. Harry Baldwin became its first president - a role he fulfilled from 1934 to September 1937. At the League's first meeting on May 8, 1935, at the Château Laurier, then-prime minister R.B. Bennett and William Lyon Mackenzie King, leader of the opposition, were named as patrons of the League.

Harry Baldwin

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Harry Baldwin - Library and Archives Canada. PA-502870.

Grandson of Robert Baldwin (who was co-prime minister of the Province of Canada before Confederation), Harry Baldwin was Prime Minister King's private secretary from 1929 to 1930. After King's defeat in 1930, Baldwin found himself outside of the public service. However, he remained a close friend of King's. He was often invited to dinner at Kingsmere, given vegetables from King's gardens, and was visited by King at his cottage at Meech Lake. It was in 1933, during one of these dinners at Moorside, that the idea of creating the Federal Woodlands Preservation League was first discussed. The League was established in 1934, and Harry Baldwin filled the role of president from 1934 to 1937, years that were crucial in the creation of the Park.

Baldwin fought tirelessly to fulfill the dream of a park in the Gatineau Hills, which he knew was the project closest to his friend King's heart. When King returned to power in 1935, Harry Baldwin was appointed to the National Employment Commission, and participated in drafting the plan to create Gatineau Park. He was insistent with the Prime Minister that this opportunity should not be missed. It was not until he was convinced that King was finally resolved to take action, in late 1937, that he passed on the role of League president to Roderick Percy Sparks. Years later, once the creation of the Park had become a reality, Baldwin continued to make representations to King to increase the Park's territory, but King was then occupied with an even larger project: the planning of Canada's Capital.