A Yellowknife-based outfitter says Parks Canada is making it difficult for emerging local businesses to get their paddles in the water.

Parks Canada is asking for feedback on a new draft policy governing how river outfitters are licensed in the Nahanni and Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserves.

Dan Wong, who runs the recently established Jackpine Paddle firm, has already publicly decried his inability to get a licence from Parks Canada.

Now, Wong is concerned the Nahanni River Outfitters Association – made up of three established businesses – had “an incredible amount of influence” on Parks Canada’s new policy

“It was really disappointing to read,” Wong told Cabin Radio. “It was almost comical at parts, if the implications weren’t so serious.”

Parks Canada says Wong is incorrect.

In a prepared statement, Nahanni park superintendent Jon Tsetso said: “The draft policy is signalling a renewed and modern framework which includes a regular schedule for managing business licenses, quota and allocation.”

The draft policy limits the total number of business licences issued in the Nahanni, to protect the land from commercial activities and “maintain the true wilderness character of the park.”

‘There is opportunity’

Under the policy, there are four types of licence governing the well-established Nahanni reserve and the Nááts’ihch’oh, which is a South Nahanni reserve created in 2014:

  • Type A Indigenous Licence – one available for a Dehcho-owned company, one available for a Tulita District Sahtu-owned company
  • Type B Historical Licence – three available
  • Type C New Operator on Trial Licence – one available
  • Type D Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve Licence – allotted on a case-by-case basis as the new park determines capacity

Wong’s Jackpine Paddle would need to apply for a Type C licence to offer guided trips in the Nahanni, which he sees as his company’s natural expansion route.

But Wong said: “There is no northern business that’s going to meet [the new operator on trial licence] criteria.”

Among other things, outfitters applying for the new operator on trial licence must be active companies with at least three years of experience, offering at least three seven-day trips per year that include class III-IV white water rapid experience.

Wong said most outfitters rarely run class IV rapids on guided tours. He estimated 90 percent of trips down the Nahanni include rapids usually rated as class I-II.

He also expressed concern that a new outfitter awarded a licence would find it difficult to be successful, as peak season trips in the most popular section of Nahanni – Náįlįcho or Virginia Falls – are reserved for historical companies.

It is unclear when Indigenous licensees would have access to Náįlįcho during this time, as the policy allots 100 percent of peak season trips to the three historical businesses.

New operators are on a probationary period for three years, after which they can apply for an incumbent licence – but, as Wong pointed out, it is not clear what type of licence this is.

“That’s something we’re going to reassess at that time,” said Tsetso by phone, adding allocations will be reviewed every five years. “If other licensees are not performing, there is opportunity for that Type C to obtain additional allocation.”

Consideration for northerners?

Black Feather, Nahanni River Adventures, and Nahanni Wilderness Adventures are grandfathered in under the Type B historical licence. The policy says they have “provided high-quality experiences across the North and their contributions are lifelong.”

On its website, Black Feather lists an address in Seguin, Ontario. Nahanni River Adventures lists an address in Whitehorse; Nahanni Wilderness Adventures provides an address in Canmore.

If these companies were to sell, their licences automatically expire as per Parks Canada regulations. But the draft policy provides a loophole through which new owners can apply for the same licence the company previously held, rather than apply for a Type C licence.

New owners would still be evaluated using the same criteria as Type C licensees, but would be allowed what Tsetso termed a “transition period,” not a probationary period.

“It gives them time to become fully operational and it gives them time to demonstrate sustainability for higher business standards. It’s a mechanism aimed at balancing the need for transition periods but also creating opportunities for competitive processes,” he explained.

But Wong sees that differently.

“It looks like it’s been actively crafted to protect the interests of current association members,” he said. “There is no consideration in this document for northern-operated business, and the absence is striking.”

Parks Canada responded to Wong’s concerns through communication with his MP, Michael McLeod, in early May.

In an email at the time, Parks Canada said: “There is no regulatory or policy mechanism for Parks Canada to make an agreement with a private company to shut out operators or place limitations on licensing.

“Management decisions in Nahanni National Park Reserve rest with Parks Canada and Indigenous cooperative management partners.”

Tsetso was able to confirm current licence holders saw a draft of the policy in September 2017, but stressed the businesses have no mandate to make policy decisions.

Wong is not convinced.

“Is the tourism and outdoor adventure industry working for Northerners?” He asked. “I don’t think it is.”

Online public consultations regarding the draft policy close on August 3.