U-Pb geochronology of detrital zircon from Lower Jurassic to Lower Cretaceous strata of the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains fold-and-thrust belt documents the presence of zircon ages close to the time of sediment accumulation throughout this succession. The identification of syndepositional zircons in Lower Jurassic strata indicates proximity of Cordilleran island arcs and terranes to the Western Canada epicratonic basin, consistent with the Jurassic sudden appearance of ash layers in the basin stratigraphy. The association of syndepositional zircon grains with Paleozoic arc-related zircons and zircons in the “North American Magmatic Gap”—likely derived from the Mesoproterozoic Belt-Purcell Supergroup—hints at possible geographic connections to the west or southwest since Early Jurassic, long before the inferred Kimmeridgian initiation of the ancestral Rocky Mountain foredeep trough in the region. Paleozoic and older grains in the Jurassic strata reflect the pre-history of the basin distributive province and show an episodic pattern that includes well-defined lower Paleozoic and Grenvillian maxima, and early Neo- to Paleoproterozoic populations, which may reflect recycling of detrital zircons from older clastic formations uplifted in the Cordilleran orogen. The youngest peaks in the probability diagrams provide maximum depositional ages for several imprecisely dated stratigraphic units. Discordant data modeling suggests a Pb-loss event in the Early Cretaceous (ca. 125–115 Ma). Our provenance data and the Fernie stratigraphic record suggest initiation of Jurassic deposition either in the backbulge or the distal foredeep depozones. We propose two alternative Jurassic foreland basin evolutionary models that explain the Fernie stratigraphic record in the examined epicratonic southwestern Canada as the result of vertical stacking of migrating foreland depozones, east of the encroaching Cordilleran orogen. The two possible initial settings, backbulge or distal foredeep, require either normal cratonward migration of a forebulge or cratonward migration interrupted by a Callovian phase of orogenward retreat, respectively. Besides filling a long-standing knowledge gap, our data allow direct comparison between the southern Canada and northern United States segments of the Cordilleran foreland basin.

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