Canada has finally submitted its delayed plan to save Wood Buffalo National Park’s World Heritage Site status.

In June 2018, UNESCO warned the park must take action to avoid being deemed an endangered site – an outcome the local Slave River Coalition termed “terribly embarrassing for Canada.

The United Nations’ involvement in the deteriorating health of the park dates back to 2014, when the Mikisew Cree First Nation first raised the alarm.

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A plan to rehabilitate the park was originally due on December 1, 2018, but that deadline was extended at Parks Canada’s request.

Groups involved in reviewing a draft of the plan say, in their eyes, the final version is lacking in some areas.

The Smith’s Landing First Nation (SLFN), Northwest Territory Métis Nation, and Fort Smith-based Slave River Coalition said in November they felt many sections of the draft plan didn’t have enough teeth, adding they were worried Parks Canada was not working hard enough to engage the public in the consultation process.

This week, while the same groups commended Parks staff for their work, their disappointment with the final plan remained evident.

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“We were disappointed that there was no real development of the science and monitoring working group. As much as we know there is work to come, this is a piece that is critical to SLFN and it would have been nice to look at some of our concerns and priorities,” wrote Becky Kostka, lands coordinator with the First Nation, in an email to Cabin Radio.

The First Nation said it was also disappointed sections of the action plan were divided among other jurisdictions to handle, leaving them out in the process.

For example, even though SLFN is lies across the border in Alberta, the province barely consulted with the First Nation on “Alberta” sections of the plan.

“Alberta’s response largely relied on legislation and activities which were already in place and the root of many of the problems in the first place,” noted Kostka.

While the First Nation has been in talks with Alberta to create a cooperative management agreement, “the process has been slow and constricted by legislation,” she said.

SLFN also has concerns with the Wildland Parks in the Lower Athabasca Regional ​​​Plan region.

These areas are billed as attempts to mitigate impacts on the ecosystem, but Kostka says the First Nation sees them as “offsets for unfettered development in the oilsands region” – particularly the Teck Resources project, located just 30 km past the park’s southern boundary.

“The Kazan Wildland Park is directly in our backyard and effectively landlocks one of our reserves, restricts how we can manage SLFN territory, and effectively orphans us from the rest of Alberta – while doing very little to protect Wood Buffalo National Park from impacts farther south, or provide valuable connectivity for wildlife like bison and caribou,” she worried.

‘Dark and troubled past’

“When I speak to SLFN Elders, one of the biggest and longstanding issues with the park is the dark and troubled past with regard to the creation and early management of the park,” continued Kostka.

“Entire communities were displaced and families removed from their homes and livelihoods; many people starved when they were abruptly uprooted and displaced.”

Métis in the region have in the past spoken out about this. Kostka called the displacement an atrocity, adding the federal government has yet to recognize the displacement or apologize for the harm it caused.

The First Nation suggested “some very powerful messaging in the spirit of reconciliation between Parks Canada and the Indigenous groups” when parties were editing the draft plan, but that feedback did not make it into the final version.

“To SLFN, we are doing the hard work now with Parks Canada and our Elders, not only to protect the physical environment of the park, but to start the healing process, and create a Wood Buffalo National Park that future generations will continue to use, in order to optimize Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, for time in-perpetuity,” said Kostka.

For the First Nation, the park’s “outstanding universal value” is tied not just to the ecology of the park, but also to its cultural importance.

“We would like to consider having a genuine look at moving the park from an ecological value to a mixed value so that Indigenous Peoples are further recognized as being integral within the park,” she said.

Her feedback wasn’t all negative: Smith’s Landing thought a working group dedicated to environmental flows and hydrology was useful and functional, even if it made no progress on addressing the Site C dam with BC Hydro.

“We are incredibly disappointed that Site C will not be addressed by the Government of Canada,” said Kostka. “This really is not good enough, considering one of the main issues in the watershed is the introduction of dams on the Peace River.”

Earlier this week, the Narwhal reported the federal government plans to “create artificial ice jams [and] strategically release water from BC Hydro’s dams” to help mitigate the unnatural effects of dams on the Peace-Athabasca delta.

Over at the Slave River Coalition, Amy Lusk said her organization was primarily concerned with Canada’s decision not to conduct an environmental and social impact assessment of the dam.

The assessments had been one of 17 recommendations made by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2016 reactive monitoring mission report.

If Canada is really committed to keeping Wood Buffalo National Park’s world heritage status, an environmental and social impact assessment of this extremely large, unnecessary, and damaging project should be undertaken,” she said.

“Over 2,800 people signed our petition asking for this to be done in response to the draft action plan.”

UNESCO is not the only UN body calling for a halt to Site C.

This past December, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination repeated its 2017 call for the BC dam’s construction to be halted until the pillars of consultation – free, prior, and informed consent – had been met.

An ‘ambitious’ plan

Garry Bailey, the president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, feels the park’s final rehabilitation plan is ambitious. He said the many governing bodies connected to the park all need to be on board.

“There’s still a lot of work to do for co-management,” he told Cabin Radio. “People need to work together and the government needs to put the money where it belongs.”

If nothing else, the consultation process seems to have somewhat healed an area of the Métis’ fraught relationship with the federal government.

“We’re optimistic – we have a good relationship with Parks Canada,” said Bailey.

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