UN again urges Canada to get on with saving Wood Buffalo park

The United Nations again told Canada to do more to save Wood Buffalo National Park as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation released a report detailing how the park harmed its people.

At an online meeting in China on Friday, Unesco – the UN body for education, science, and culture – approved a decision (see page 190) that made multiple requests of Canada, including that Ottawa invite a monitoring mission to assess Wood Buffalo’s state of conservation.

A spokesperson for Unesco said the decision was “approved without debate and without discussion.”


The decision is the most recent development in an ongoing investigation into whether or not the national park’s World Heritage Site status should be classified as in danger.

The UN’s involvement in the deteriorating health of the park dates back to 2014, when the Mikisew Cree First Nation first raised the alarm that Wood Buffalo’s “outstanding universal value” was being diminished by ongoing environmental threats to the park’s ecosystem and its cultural importance.

Over the past eight years, the federal government has submitted plans and injected more than $87 million to rehabilitate the park. Even so, Unesco has called for more to be done. Most recently, in December 2020, Canada announced nearly $60 million in new funding while at the same time submitting an updated conservation report – a month behind Unesco’s deadline.

Unesco’s Friday decision comes in response to Canada’s December report, which highlighted various environmental assessments that have been completed, monitoring of tailings ponds and oilsands activities, water management, data sharing, and the establishment of two science and Indigenous knowledge task teams. Unesco had earlier said Canada’s initial plan needed “considerably more effort … to reverse the negative trends” in the park.

After reviewing the new December report, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee made three key requests while underlining a series of previous, unfulfilled requests.


The committee’s first request is that Canada “allocate adequate resources” and establish a process for effective coordination among the various governments that manage ecosystems in and around the park. Unesco encouraged the federal government to explore “innovative conservation governance and management models.”

Second, Unesco asked Canada to invite a monitoring mission – formed of representatives from the World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature – to assess the state of the park as soon as possible and determine if the park must to be added to the list of World Heritage sites in danger.

An initial monitoring mission was conducted in 2016. Unesco said Wood Buffalo has not improved since then and Canada’s progress in addressing concerns has “been insufficient.”

The World Heritage Committee “considers that the property likely meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger,” noted July’s decision.


Third, the UN body asked the federal government to submit another, updated report on the state of conservation by February 1, 2022. The report is supposed to include “a pathway to address the governance challenges and multiple threats impeding the effectiveness of the implementation of the action plan and a broader response to the growing threats to the outstanding universal value of the property.”

Unesco reiterated its previous requests that Canada partner with local Indigenous governments to manage the property, conduct environmental flow assessments for the Peace Athabasca Delta, conduct a risk assessment of Alberta’s tailings ponds, and monitor all possible individual and cumulative impacts on the park and the Peace Athabasca Delta.

It also encouraged Canada to “consider the designation of a buffer zone for the property, in particular towards the advancing development frontier.”

In the decision, Unesco noted it understands most of the risks to the national park come from outside the park’s boundaries, such as tailings ponds, climate change, and hydro development – but stressed Canada has to do more to work collaboratively with partners to manage those risks.

Report details Wood Buffalo’s injustices against Indigenous Peoples

The World Heritage Committee’s decision comes within a week of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation releasing a 181-page report outlining the history of the national park’s “fraught and complex” relationship with Indigenous peoples “whose lands and waterways it takes up.”

The document, first reported by the Globe and Mail, details how some families were “expelled from the park and separated from their families after 1926” when the park was expanded, and how Indigenous people “were denied the ability to practise their harvesting rights and stewarding responsibilities” even though industry was allowed in.

“If reconciliation between Denésuliné and Parks Canada is ever to be a possibility, acknowledgement of and compensation for the long history of irreparable damage detailed above is the first, critical step,” the report stated.

The report, written by Alberta consultants Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, is meant to record the “historical narrative, impacts, and critical interpretations” of Wood Buffalo’s impact on the First Nation and other Indigenous peoples.