Alberta chief urges Canada to take action on UN warning to protect national park

(Wood Buffalo National Park. UNESCO photo)

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
The chief of a First Nation in northern Alberta is calling on the Canadian government to take immediate action in protecting the Wood Buffalo National Park.

“There has to be some sort of urgency to address this issue,” said Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Courtoreille’s comments come after a report last week by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that warned Canada about the environmental risks unfolding within Wood Buffalo due to poor management, hydro dams and industrial development.

The park is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest parks in the world making up approximately 4.5 million hectares of Canada’s boreal plains. Wood Buffalo is made up of boreal grasslands, wetlands and forests, numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds.

It is also home to the world’s largest herd of free-ranging wood bison and the only breeding ground of its kind for wild whopping cranes.

In 2014, the Mikisew Cree submitted a petition UNESCO to conduct a mission investigation into the health of the park and climate change, human and industrial impacts. The mission took place over 10 days last fall and resulted in last week’s report.

The report stated that the long-term future of the bison and whooping crane is uncertain. It also noted that the Peace/Athabasca Delta has been affected by decades of industrial development along the Peace and Athabasca rivers.

UNESCO submitted a list of 17 recommendations to Canada on how to avoid getting the park listed as an endangered World Heritage site. At the top of the list was Indigenous rights and encouraging Indigenous groups and government to work in partnership with managing the park.

Courtoreille said the Mikisew have accessed the area to hunt, fish, trap and use for cultural ceremony for thousands of years and developed their own management systems. However, he is fully supportive of the recommendations and thinks industry needs to get on the working board as well.

Mikisew is located in the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan just over two hours north of Fort McMurray, downstream from the oil sands and adjacent to Wood Buffalo Park. The Bennett Dam built on the Peace River in the 1960s and other industrial activities have drained water levels, said Courtoreille.

“When the land dries up and the water is gone it’s harder to put it back to a state where it was. They’re (industry) supposed to maintain the level of water to our satisfaction. That was never done,” he said.

There are 11 other First Nations and Metis communities that live in and around the park.

Environment and Climate Change Canada welcomed the UNESCO review and promised a call to action to protect the park according to a statement.

“In response to this report, our government will provide leadership to secure the future of Wood Buffalo National Park,” Minister Catherine McKenna said. “We can only do this by working with all levels of government, with industry, stakeholders and Indigenous partners. By doing so, we will create a path forward to ensure that Wood Buffalo National Park remains a treasured place for generations of Canadians.

[email protected]