On the 100th Anniversary of Wood Buffalo National Park, Chief Allan Adam Sets the Record Straight on Park Founder who Starved Indigenous People

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Agrees to Change Name of Prestigious Harkin Award

December 12, 2022, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta – The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has agreed to change the name of the prestigious Harkin Award in light of its namesake’s involvement in the starvation of Indigenous peoples in Wood Buffalo National Park – which was created 100 years ago on December 18, 1922.

The Harkin Award recognizes individuals “who have demonstrated a significant contribution throughout their lifetime through words and deeds to the conservation of Canada’s parks and wilderness.” The inaugural Harkin Award was given to the Hon. Jean Chrétien in 1972.

The award is named after J.B. Harkin, Commissioner of the Dominion Parks Branch from 1911-36. Harkin is often remembered as a strident conservationist and the “Father of National Parks” – including Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Alberta/Northwest Territories.  

What is rarely discussed is Harkin’s contempt for Indigenous people, their land, and their rights.

“The truth is that many National Parks, and especially Wood Buffalo, were created at the expense of Indigenous people – with Indigenous people being forced out of their homes and denied their hunting and trapping rights, all so that settlers could enjoy ‘unspoiled’ landscapes,” shared Chief Allan Adam, Chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

In the case of Wood Buffalo National Park, Dené people were violently removed from the land, their Treaty rights severely limited, and their Dené heritage denied, in the name of protecting bison.

A century of mistreatment is detailed in the 2021 report A History of Wood Buffalo National Park’s Relations with the Denésuliné, issued by ACFN and Willow Springs Strategic Solutions.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has been seeking a formal apology from the Government of Canada for the displacement of their people. The contrast between J.B. Harkin’s legacy and the consequences of his actions has come into stark relief as ACFN has undertaken research in the course of these negotiations.

“This is a man who stated outright that prohibiting Indigenous hunting rights was an essential conservation tool, because ‘even the Indians have a wholesome respect for park boundaries.’[1] He was openly contemptuous of Indigenous people and far more concerned with conserving animals than protecting the rights and well-being of our people,” added Chief Adam.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society had already begun a process to change the name of the prestigious award as part of plans for their 60th anniversary year in 2023.

“We agree with ACFN that it is no longer appropriate to honour J.B. Harkin, and it is time to rename the award. We will issue a call for nominations in the spring, so that we can honour the first recipient of the newly re-named award at our 60th anniversary event in November 2023,” said CPAWS National Executive Director Sandra Schwartz, “We look forward to continuing to share the history of the award and why re-naming is so important given our longstanding commitment to reconciliation, as we work with our Indigenous partners, including ACFN, to fulfill our shared mission to protect land and water.”

ACFN continues to engage the Government of Canada to negotiate a formal apology for the treatment of their people in Wood Buffalo National Park, but the history of this park is far from unique.

“Indigenous people were expelled, harmed, and mistreated for the creation of National Parks across the country. We need to change the way that not only J.B. Harkin, but the entire history of Canada’s National Parks, is remembered,” added Chief Adam.

For more information, please contact:

Jay Telegdi
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
[email protected]

Tracy Walden
National Director, Communications and Development
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
[email protected]
[email protected]

[1] James Harkin, “Wild Life Sanctuaries,” in Commission of Conservation, National Conference, 49. cited in Sandlos, J. (2007). Hunters at the margin: Native people and wildlife conservation in the Northwest Territories, UBC Press.