Everything After

An illustration of prong-horned antelope in an article titled “National Parks and Sanctuaries in Canada” by M. B. Williams in The Animals' Friend magazine, June 1936. Click here to read the article.

MB's involvement with Grey Owl’s lecture 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 1936 and asked for the manuscript by June. MB fretted to A. B. 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 park service.

Guardians of the Wild opens with the rain beating down on an Ottawa office window in September 1911, and an unnamed “Commissioner”—who is presented as having the genius and far-sightedness of the Creator—contemplating the responsibility of having a 20,000-square-kilometer kingdom under his control, thousands of kilometers away. It goes on to describe how parks came about, what they do for people and for nature, and how much the Parks Branch had accomplished in its first quarter-century. And yet, Williams’s book never betrays her own role in the history of the park system. Guardians of the Wild earned good reviews, including a radio review transcript sent to her by Commissioner Harkin. 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’s letter, saying it “dropped out of sight at the time of ‘the constitutional crisis.’” This truly was a different era.

 

The frontispiece of Guardians of the Wild, written by MB Williams

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 then 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 apparently never completed anything. Her writing career went nowhere. But at the suggestion of Saskatoon publisher H. R. Larson, she drove—at almost 70 years of age—through the Canadian Rockies for research and inspiration, and reworked some of her old guidebooks, such 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 J. B. 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's house on Queens Avenue, London, Ontario (post-1949)

In the 1960s, MB corresponded regularly with longtime park staffer W. F. Lothian, who was writing a four-volume official history of Parks Canada. She shared with him her memories of the park service’s early years, crediting Harkin more than ever for his leadership and brilliance. MB Williams died in 1972. When Lothian finally completed the first volume of his history four years later, he sent a copy to Williams’s close friend Eleanor Shaw. On reading it, Shaw was distressed to find that Harkin and other senior civil servants and politicians receive all the recognition; Williams’s name barely appears. Shaw told Lothian bluntly, “It is dreadful to think that Miss Williams is given no credit for the vital and important work she did for the national Parks, in making known to Canadians the great treasure that was now theirs for all time.”

 

Only twenty of MB’s ninety-four years had involved working in the Canadian national park system. This exhibit, 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 when almost ninety years old, it is those years with the Parks Branch which continually draw her back, and which make her sound so vigorous. Working alongside Harkin to figure out how to justify parks to Parliament. Travelling with anthropologist Marius Barbeau to see the “last” potlatch held by Indigenous people in British Columbia. Laughing at the “hardship” of staying in a luxurious cabin at Jasper.

Mabel Berta Williams

MB Williams in her eighties-nineties. The two audio interviews below focused mostly on MB's work with the Parks Branch, conducted over two sessions in October 1969 and June 1970 by her niece Ruth and Ruth's husband Len Wertheimer. 

For audio track timelines, please click here.

VE_MB Williams_track_one_combined_final_tracks_1-2.mp3, by rdeol
VE_MB Williams_track_two_combined_final_tracks_3-9.mp3, by rdeol

 

 

 

MB opened Guardians of the Wild with British socialist writer Edward Carpenter's line, “I see a great land waiting for its own people to come and take possession of it.” (She had made this something of a mission statement for the Canadian national park system, having used it in two previous publications.) MB Williams’s work writing guidebooks and policy for the fledgling Dominion Parks Branch helped Canadians take emotional and intellectual possession of their land, and build a national park system that rivals any in the world. And it helped her take possession of her land, and her life, too.