The Gatineau Park Chronicles

From The Gatineau Park Chronicle Fall 2007 issue.

Save the Hills!

Text by Denis Messier

During the Depression, farmers and local entrepreneurs had stepped up the felling of trees in the forests of the Gatineau. The Federal Woodlands Preservation League was established in 1934 as a means of countering the widespread cutting of trees around Kingsmere, Meech and Mousseau lakes. Influential citizens - such as Roderick Percy Sparks, Harry Baldwin, Charles Edmond Mortureux (president of the Ottawa Ski Club), Colonel J.T.C. Thompson, W.D. Herridge (future ambassador to the United States), Lieutenant-Colonel Cameron Macpherson Edwards and Mackenzie King himself - called for action on the part of the government.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
The Right Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King - Library and Archives Canada.

In October 1935, Mackenzie King was returned to power and got to work reviving his various projects, albeit on the relatively shaky foundations of the Depression years. Clearly, the volatile world situation and the continuing depression were his priorities, but the idea of a park had not been forgotten.

In 1936, the Federal District Commission, in collaboration with the National Employment Commission, developed a plan with the twin objectives of establishing a park in the Gatineau Hills while creating dozens of unskilled jobs to help reduce the chronic unemployment caused by the Great Depression.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Mackenzie King at Camp Fortune - Canadian Ski Museum, Ottawa, Ont. (70-20-28).

But why did it take two years before this plan was implemented? It seems that the election of Maurice Duplessis' Union nationale in the province of Quebec, on August 17, 1936, by an overwhelming majority, was of great concern to King, whose electoral base was in Quebec. Duplessis, a Conservative, was one of the main adversaries of the King Liberals. The plan for a park in the Gatineau Hills was therefore delayed. Long, unproductive negotiations continued for many months.

In 1937, Sparks, then the new president of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League, proposed a detailed plan to Prime Minister King for the creation of a park in the hills. The plan was largely based on the 1936 plan produced by the National Employment Commission.King, who had previously hesitated in the face of potential negative public opinion regarding the creation of a park around his own estate, decided to disregard these hesitations and the concerns about Duplessis and to take action. He worked with his Finance Minister, Charles Avery Dunning, in December 1937.

I had a short talk with Dunning, who seemed pleased with his Toronto visit, and who spoke to me about the Improvement Commission's desire to go on with preserving some of the Gatineau wood toward Meach [sic] Lake for National Park purposes, etc. He wanted to know what I wished to have done. I told him that the matter had stood over last year because of my feeling that people might think I was seeking to improve property around Kingsmere. I have come to the conclusion this year that I should not let possible misunderstanding of my ownership at Kingsmere stand in the way of a much needed preservation of the forest. I told him I wished them to go ahead with the work, though personally it meant less in the way of seclusion for myself on the way to and from Kingsmere to have even the Meach [sic] Lake district opened up to tourists. I believe that we owe it to the Capital of Canada to save that part of its environment. I think he will agree to the $100,000 being appropriated for that purpose.

As one of the initiators behind the League's creation and a supporter of its activities, King introduced a budget of $100,000 in June 1938 for the purchase of land. Chapter 54 of 2 George VI was passed on July 1, 1938

to provide for acquisition of land and surveys in connection with the National Parkway in the Gatineau Valley adjacent to Ottawa: $100,000.

Thus, on July 1 began the creation of Gatineau Park.

As was done in many other large public works projects, King's government employed dozens of jobless workers affected by the continuing depression to work on establishing the first amenities in Gatineau Park.Trails,picnic areas,parking lots, beaches and campgrounds were constructed by these impoverished citizens who were happy to find paid work. King cleverly used this initiative to sell his opponents on the idea of creating a park, situated around his own private estate, in the middle of an economic depression.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Roderick Percy Sparks - Library and Archives Canada.

Roderick Percy Sparks

A relative of Nicholas Sparks, one of the pioneers of Canada's Capital, Roderick Percy Sparks was born in Ottawa in 1880. Lawyer, businessman and lobbyist, Sparks was known as a passionate supporter of nature conservation and a protector of the Gatineau Hills. As a cottager and then a resident of the Park territory, he was a figurehead for pressure groups arguing for the creation of a park in the Gatineau Hills. Vice-president of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League from 1934 to 1937, Sparks became the League's president in 1937, a position he held until 1947. Then, from 1947 to 1954, he served as chairman of the Advisory Committee on Gatineau Park. In this capacity, as part of the capital planning committee established by Mackenzie King and led by the Federal District Commission, he co-signed one of the first planning documents for the Park.

Jacques Gréber, 1882-1962

Son of a French sculptor, Jacques Gréber studied architecture at the prestigious école des Beaux-Arts in Paris. From 1908 to 1917, he was involved in several large projects and headed a number of others, in the United States. In October 1936, during a trip to Paris, William Lyon Mackenzie King met Jacques Gréber, the architect and urban planner responsible for the world exposition being held there. Gréber had a solid reputation for his work in France as well as in many U.S. cities. This meeting marked a turning point in the development of Canada's Capital.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Jacques Gréber at Moorside - Library and Archives Canada,

Gréber's first task was to advise the government on the planning and development of Ottawa's downtown area. When the Second World War broke out, Gréber went home to France. However, just a few months after the end of the war, King invited Gréber to return to Ottawa to undertake a comprehensive study for the planning and development of the National Capital Region.

On March 8, 1946, the Canadian government established the National Capital Planning Committee, chaired by the Minister of Public Works, headed by the Federal District Commission and to which Jacques Gréber was the senior consultant. Tabled in 1950, the Gréber Plan, entitled General Report on the Plan for the National Capital, was the planning committee's final report. Recognized as a key planning document in Canada's history, the plan proposed a series of measures to create the "Washington of the North" that Sir Wilfrid Laurier had envisioned for Canada's Capital.The report also included general recommendations for the enlargement of Gatineau Park. Although the Gréber Plan did not create Gatineau Park, it integrated the Park into its plan for the improvement of the Capital. In just a few decades, the Park grew from 6,475 hectares to its current area of 36,100 hectares.

In the personal acknowledgements section of his report, Jacques Gréber presented an eloquent description of the role that King played in the planning of the Capital:

We sincerely hope that the National Capital plan will materialize, and, if in some measure, our contribution brings closer to the Canadian people the fulfilment of its aspirations, and some reason for pride, their gratitude, as well as ours, ought to go first to the great figures of Canadian history who foresaw the future destiny of this Capital: [...] and the Right Honourable William L. Mackenzie King, who, with the broadest vision and foresight, initiated the present work and whose name will be associated in perpetuity with the development of the National Capital.

It is thus quite evident that the former prime minister played an equally important role in the creation of Gatineau Park.

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