Wood Buffalo National Park awaits latest Unesco verdict

Last modified: August 30, 2022 at 7:24am

As a Unesco assessment of Wood Buffalo National Park’s recovery concludes, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says Parks Canada needs to take the park’s conservation more seriously.

Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, is evaluating whether the world heritage site status of Canada’s largest national park – straddling the NWT-Alberta border west of Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan – should be considered in danger.

Among the threats being assessed are plans to release tailings from Alberta oil sands into the watershed of rivers that flow through the park.


Lori Cyprien, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s director of rights and lands, told Cabin Radio the current situation is, in her view, the product of years of delay at federal level.

Cyprien said Indigenous communities in and around the park repeatedly expressed concern about the park only to be met with the same response.

“Thank you for reaching out, but we don’t think there’s any concern,” is how Cyprien characterized Parks Canada’s response.

“It’s just brushing us off, even though we’re trying to talk their language with the Western science and data,” she said.

Parks Canada says it has taken its Indigenous partners seriously and continues to do so.


“We’ve been working with them in the development of the action plan and the protection and conservation of the park,” said Christine Loth-Bown, Parks Canada’s vice-president of Indigenous affairs and cultural heritage, referring to an action plan developed after Unesco first expressed concern in 2016.

Unesco’s latest inspection, in part assessing the outcome of actions in that plan, ran from August 18 to 26.

A Unesco World Heritage Centre spokesperson said three experts – two from Unesco and one from the International Union for Conservation of Nature – had a mandate “to assess the state of conservation of the property, to assess the threats to the property, and ascertain their impacts on the outstanding universal value of the property.”

Unesco said those experts were not available to comment for this article. The agency said the experts’ report is “expected to be finalized within several weeks following the mission and will be made public.”


Salt River, Wood Buffalo National Park. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

Cyprien said of Parks Canada: “I feel like they probably think that they’re doing an OK job and they were taking things seriously, but they haven’t been, really, since 2016.

“They didn’t jump right on the ball at that time so I’m hoping that when the report comes back, they’ll be mandated to do more for the park and for the Delta,” she added, referring to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas, which is located partly within the park.

Other Indigenous communities have expressed similar skepticism about Canada’s progress toward saving the park’s world heritage site status.

“Canada is not delivering,” Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation told the Canadian Press.

According to Lepine, a verdict that the park is endangered is necessary to drive greater action from the federal government. (Attempts to reach members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Smith’s Landing First Nation and Salt River First Nation for this article were unsuccessful.)

Cyprien said that while her First Nation does not feel heard by Parks Canada, she is satisfied that the Unesco visit went as she had hoped.

“It went very well,” she said. “I think they’ve heard the communities’ voices, they have heard our concerns of how we still need to keep that protection of Wood Buffalo National Park and especially the Delta portion.”

What are the concerns?

Larger than Switzerland, Wood Buffalo National Park’s world heritage site status is derived in part from its wood bison population – the world’s largest – and the presence of the world’s only remaining natural nesting site of the endangered whooping crane, alongside the river delta and its associated biodiversity.

A 2014 petition by the Mikisew Cree First Nation brought concern about the park to the World Heritage Committee’s attention.

That petition questioned the impact of Alberta’s oil sands industry and climate change on the ecology and hydrology of the park, specifically the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Unesco responded with a visit to the park in 2016 for what it called a “reactive monitoring mission.” Subsequently, the World Heritage Committee said it “noted that the conservation status of the Wood Buffalo National Park as a world heritage site needs to be improved and made several recommendations in this regard.”

Recommendations made by Unesco to Parks Canada urged closer collaboration between the federal, territorial, and provincial governments and surrounding Indigenous communities, and in particular requested urgent assessments of the risk to the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the environmental and social impacts of industry and climate change on the park and its peoples.

If those actions were not carried out with sufficient speed, Unesco said, the park would be placed on a list of world heritage sites in danger. That list currently includes 52 locations, the majority in Africa and the Middle East. None of Canada’s 20 world heritage sites are on the list. One, the Everglades National Park, is endangered in the United States.

Salt Plains, Wood Buffalo National Park. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

In addition to concerns raised by Unesco, Cyprien believes tourism and other aspects of climate change are having a negative impact on the park.

Parks Canada’s Loth-Bown avoided directly addressing those impacts, instead stating that the factors are “complex.”

“Ecological change takes time, and working with partners takes time,” said Loth-Bown.

“We are seeing some good trends in some areas, and we’re committed to seeing the work through. We feel that we’ve got that plan and want to be able to get the time to continue to implement it.”

What has been done?

In response to Unesco’s instructions, Parks Canada says it developed its action plan in collaboration with the 11 Indigenous communities with connections to the park and its land and water.

That action plan originally included 142 items, though Parks Canada now refers to a total of 138 actions. What happened to the other four was not immediately explained.

In broad terms, actions include the strengthening of relationships with Indigenous partners, enhanced research and management of the Peace-Athabasca Delta through Western and Indigenous knowledge, and increased protection of park ecosystems.

In a statement on Monday, Parks Canada said that since the 2017 action plan was released, “two-thirds of the action plan’s 138 actions are either completed or under way, and all partners continue to make the conservation and restoration of Wood Buffalo National Park a priority.”

With Unesco’s experts barred from discussing their assessment while it took place, Cyprien of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation explained her understanding of their areas of focus.

She said the experts had examined the threat posed by oil sands tailings, water quality, and the prospect of industry-induced climate change affecting water levels.

Kayakers at Pelican Rapids as a wildfire burns in the distance outside Fort Smith. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

A major concern for Indigenous communities is the federal proposal to release treated oil sands tailings – leftovers from the process that separates oil from sand and clay – into the Athabasca River.

More than 1.4 trillion litres of tailings in the region are kept in ponds that cover a combined area of 220 square kilometres.

A first draft of federal protocols that would allow the release of treated tailings water into the river is scheduled to be finished by 2024. A final draft is expected in 2025. The Alberta and federal governments, and the corporations involved, say that release would be safe.

Cyprien disagrees. “If those tailings go into the water system, it’s going to damage a lot of our ecosystem,” she told Cabin Radio.

“Regardless of how clean they say the water is, it is going to cause a huge issue downstream.

“Once they release [the tailings], it all kind-of goes away from them – but then we get the settlement, right at the heart of the Delta.”

As a minimum, Cyprien says communication from governments to Indigenous peoples in the park must improve, and the way governments regulate industry must change. She says at the moment, oil sands and mining projects are being allowed to surround the park and associated herds of animals and Indigenous communities.

“If they build right around it,” said Cyprien, “our traditional life or traditional land will no longer be known to us, because we can’t use them any more.”

Cyprien hopes Unesco will instruct Canada to limit the amount of tailings that can be released into the Athabasca River.

“They worked very hard. They were very intense, they were observant, they paid attention to every single person, especially the land users who were telling them their concerns,” she said of the three experts who visited last week.

“I feel like they were really responsive and understanding of all our issues, and I hope that it comes out to be something in our favour and we can continue to work on the action plan.”

Parks promises ‘shared governance’

Rhona Kindopp, Wood Buffalo National Park’s site superintendent, told Cabin Radio Parks Canada is working hard to involve Indigenous communities and ensure the well-being of the park.

“We work with our partners in many ways at ground level. They’re involved in our science monitoring program, which is identifying indicators of the health of the ecosystem that our partners value and satisfies the perspectives of everybody involved,” Kindopp said.

Pine Lake, Wood Buffalo National Park. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio

According to Kindopp, a committee of Parks Canada staff and representatives from the 11 Indigenous governments is working toward a shared vision of how the park should be managed.

“Each community is going through that in their individual processes, and then all of that information will be brought together,” she said.

“Where there are commonalities, we’ll work on shared governance of the park in those areas. And where things are not in common, Parks Canada will work individually with First Nations and Mètis groups on those items.”

Cyprien says Indigenous involvement has to move past issuing recommendations.

“We want to help with the governance of the Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park. We don’t want to just sit here and say: ‘This is what we think you should do,'” she said.

“We want to be at the table, helping make the decisions and helping push these policies forward. It’s time that we get to sit with them and help move our concerns forward and not just give guidance.

“We need to have a stronger voice. We need to be there making governance decisions alongside them.”

Though she feels Parks Canada is not taking the park’s deterioration seriously enough, Cyprien did acknowledge the federal agency appeared to have engaged more with Indigenous communities in the past year.

“They really amped it up within the last year, which is a good start, but we are hesitant if it’s going to continue,” she said. “Which is unfortunate because really, it’s great that the park officials are there, but it’s the land users that call this home. We need to keep it healthy and revive the delta for the future generations.”

Should Wood Buffalo National Park be considered “in danger” as a world heritage site, Parks Canada will be given a further list of corrective actions required to save its status.

The precise consequences of ultimately dropping off the list of world heritage sites entirely – a process that would take many years – are not clear.