LA COREY, Alta. – A proposal to transition a large area of provincial parks and municipal lands in northeast Alberta into Indigenous Protection and Conserved Areas (IPCA) sparked citizen mobilization on Thursday, Oct. 20.
Over 500 Lakeland residents with vested interest in the area under the IPCA scope poured into the Prairie Willow community hall in the hamlet of La Corey to understand what the proposed project entailed. And most importantly, what the IPCA would mean for current recreational land users, cattle grazers, industry workers and property owners.
The meeting organized by Bonnyville business owner Mitch Sylvester, offered little insight into the IPCA project as representatives from the Métis Settlements of Alberta nor their consultants, Toma Consulting Inc. and Solstice Environmental Management, were in attendance.
Instead, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson and MD of Bonnyville Reeve Barry Kalinski took the floor to share their opinions and disapproval for the project based on the information they had at their disposal.
Reeve Kalinski started by apologizing for not getting what limited information he had out to the public sooner.
“We really didn't know what it's all about,” said Kalinski referring to a delegation by Toma Consulting that was presented to the MD council on Sept. 28. The presentation was originally scheduled to take place Sept. 14 but was bumped due to time constraints.
The presentation raised both eyebrows and questions for the MD council members. During the regular meeting of council, councillors made it clear that they failed to understand why they were being approached to give up an estimated 559.44 km2 of municipal land to be included in the proposed IPCA.
The area in question included municipal campgrounds, developed recreational areas and active oil well sites.
The proposed Study Area A: Wolf Lake/Lakeland also seeks to include two provincial areas and parks – Lakeland Provincial Park and the Lakeland Provincial Recreational Area.
“Man, it was the poorest presentation I think I have, out of all my 11 years, ever seen. They were doing a cookie cutter presentation, [but] they really didn't know the area,” Kalinski told the audience in La Corey Thursday evening.
“They're talking about caribou and all kinds of stuff that happens in the area. One thing they were talking about the trappers in the area, and they were saying the Indigenous trappers of the area are suffering,” said the reeve, referring to some of reasons the consultant said the specific area was proposed for the IPCA initiative.
He went on to say other reasons for the project also didn’t sit well with him.
“They talked about the caribou herd up there... I've been here a long time and there's many of you that have been up in Wolf Lake a lot more than I have and scouted that area. If you've seen a caribou up there, you're a fortunate person in this room. I'm sure some of you have, but it has been one at a time, not herds,” said Kalinski, expressing that caribou don’t often frequent the area.
However, the diminished Woodland Caribou population is the main reason behind the proposal to protect and conserve specific caribou habitats.
Kalinski followed by reading a motion his council passed on Oct. 12: “Council opposes the development of the new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) until such time as clarity is provided regarding assessment control, land use planning control, the MD of Bonnyville’s autonomy on lands inside the municipality's jurisdiction boundaries and continue future resident use of the lands in question. And furthermore, that council direct administration to prepare a draft letter to the Alberta Premier, the Minister of Environment and Parks, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and the Minister of Indigenous Relations, from the reeve outlining the municipality’s concerns regarding the matter.”
The motion was passed unanimously by the MD council.
Kalinski added that the way IPCA proposal was presented to the municipality’s council also appeared to be a simple means to “check off boxes” to show that engagement with stakeholders had been carried out.
Provincially protected lands
MLA Hanson spoke next on the matter with an even greater disapproval for the project and how the public consultation portion of the IPCA feasibility study was being rolled out.
“I'd like to start by saying that I don't support this proposal at all. I don't like the way I found out about it, which was by Reeve Kalinski bringing this proposal to me and said ‘Hey, what is this all about?’ So, I was blindsided by it,” said Hanson.
“I immediately got on the phone and found the ministers involved – They knew nothing about it. I looked at the brochure and they said that they talked to the Métis Nation of Alberta. So, I got a hold Duane Zaraska from Bonnyville, [the] Region 2 president... He was surprised. So, the idea that they've consulted with people is an absolute falsehood.”
Hanson went on to say that the area in question, and far beyond its scope, was recently the subject of a Government of Alberta Cold Lake Sub-regional Plan Task Force.
The task force was made up of 20 diverse interest groups ranging from people and organizations familiar with the Cold Lake Sub-region and included local municipalities, Indigenous peoples and organizations, the energy and forestry sectors, trappers, recreational users, environmental non-government organizations, and other local stakeholders and knowledge holders.
Hanson, who chaired the task force, listed some of the groups involved: Alberta Forest Products Association, Alberta Trappers Association, Canada Energy Pipeline Association, Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, Confederacy of Treaty 8 First Nations, and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
The province developed the Cold Lake Sub-regional Plan, which covers a 16,659 km2 of northeast Alberta and includes the south-east part of the Lower Athabasca Regional Planning (LARP) area, to avoid a federal protection order under the Species at Risk Act that directly referenced Woodland Caribou and habitat preservation and restoration.
“In 2019, we were notified that the federal government was looking at an emergency protection order for Woodland Caribou in this area. It would have meant the loss of 60,000 to 100,000 jobs in northeastern Alberta,” Hanson told those in attendance.
“The briefing I got was that currently we were at nine per cent undisturbed habitat. The federal government and the Species at Risk Act under the United Nations [were] seeking 65 per cent undisturbed over a 50-to-100-year period. So, we were assigned with the task to come up with a plan to get to that point.”
The provincial government established a task force on Nov. 4, 2019, to develop an alternative solution to the emergency protection order. At the end of April, the group delivered a report with 43 recommendations that was supported by all members.
This was done without shutting down industry, without creating chaos to the environment and without shutting down trappers, said Hanson.
On Oct. 23, 2020, the federal and Alberta governments signed an agreement for the conservation and recovery of Alberta’s last 15 dwindling caribou herds.
This agreement was carried out under Section 11 of the Species at Risk Act (Canada) and Sections 10 and 11 of the Government Organization Act (Alberta).
“The Section 11 agreement under the Species at Risk Act, turned over all control over these public lands and the species at risk to the province – That is total provincial jurisdiction,” said Hanson.
“It's incredibly important that you understand what took place there because that helps protect us from what they're trying to do here.”
Divide and conquer
“This is clearly, to me, the federal government, ignoring the Section 11 agreement, finding another way to intervene by providing cash to the Métis Settlements – and if somebody gives you money to do something, you're probably not going to turn it down. But this is just another way for the federal government to interfere with what we have going on here and cause a huge division in our community,” said Hanson.
Referring to the recent movement towards reconciliation and community collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, the MLA added, “I see this as a divide and conquer by the federal government. I'm very disgusted with it.”
Hanson when on to add the presentation on the IPCA project for the Lakeland region “Had absolutely no details” in its proposed implementation.
The MLA did not stop short of saying that the consulting firms should be fired immediately.
“I'm not going to support this. The municipality is not going to support this. Our ministers are not going to support this, and we need to push back against Ottawa and tell them to keep their hands off of our public lands,” added Hanson.
Residents speak up
During a presentation by the executive director of Take Back Alberta, David Parker, an audience member, who asked not to be identified, interjected the speaker asking if more information and the possible impact of the IPCA proposal would be provided.
He was met with a resounding ‘no’ from local leaders.
“The only things that they talked about at that meeting were berry-picking opportunities, fishing opportunities, protection of caribou, which all falls under that caribou task force, and the 43 recommendations that we put forward that got the Section 11 agreements signed. Everything that they want to do with this IPCA is covered under that agreement,” responded Hanson.
The audience member also asked if there was proof that the federal government was behind the IPCA project.
To this, Hanson said, “Yes, absolutely.” However, specific details were not provided on the connection between the proposal and the Government of Canada.
Canada Target 1 Challenge
Lakeland This Week found that the Métis Settlements General Council was the recipient of a Target 1 Challenge investment provided by the federal government.
The Métis Settlements involved in this proposal include Buffalo Lake, Elizabeth, Fishing Lake, Gift Lake, Kikino, Paddle Prairie and Peavine.
The federal initiative invests in projects that “help to improve connectivity, advance Indigenous-led conservation and reconciliation, and have co-benefits for species at risk or carbon storage,” according to the Canada Target 1 Challenge website.
“The Target 1 Challenge is an investment by the federal government in projects that can add to Canada’s protected and conserved areas across the country. The Government of Canada is committed to conserving 25 per cent of Canada’s land and 25 per cent of its oceans by 2025.”
Target 1 Challenge divides projects into two categories establishment projects and capacity-building projects.
Of the ongoing projects, two-thirds are expected to establish a protected or conserved area in the near future, while one-third of the projects are focused on preliminary work for protected and conserved areas in the longer term, 5 to 10 years, states the federal website.
The two IPCAs proposed in northeast Alberta fall under the project: Métis Settlements Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas Initiative. The project is currently deemed an establishment project.
The description of the project states, “The Métis Settlements General Council will work to conserve land in the vicinities of Wolf Lake, Touchwood Lake, and North Buck Lake. Their work will protect habitats for species at risk including the woodland caribou and grizzly bear.”
The investment amount provided to the Métis Settlements General Council for the IPCA establishment project was not made publicly available.
Information publicly available
Members of the public wanting more information on the IPCA proposal can visit the Métis Settlements Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas Initiative website (www.msgcipca.com).
The website contains the exact area being considered for the IPCA as well as some background on why the areas were selected and the locations significance to Métis Settlements.
A land use survey is also available on the website.
In the delegation presented to the MD of Bonnyville, council heard that IPCA project will be divided into four phases, a jurisdiction review, engagement, financial review and lastly, validation of the plan.
The key principles of the IPCA project are to have Indigenous service delivery, through various guardian monitoring and management programs that would focus on habitat, species, water, land uses for current and future generations, as well as ecosystem outcomes.
The plan to create sustainable funding for park management will be attained through grants, programs and fees for services.
The development of an IPCA will take a phased in approach, starting with planning in 2023 with full implementation over the next 20 years.
The consultants acknowledged that the IPCA project will have to consider current landowners, leaseholders, tourists and oil leases.
“The change process considers both immediate lands to include and the lands which will require more time to include,” states material provided by the two consulting firms.
Other considerations will be for caribou and species at risk, water, wetlands, habitat restoration, new tourism opportunities, and the retention and enhancement Indigenous cultural and historic settlement.
The materials provided state lake recreation and cottage users can continue, but whether properties can be sold on open market in the future was not indicated.
The consultants also stated they had met with four eastern Métis Settlements with a total of about 50 members attending engagement sessions, and 65 people completing an online engagement survey as of Sept. 28.
Feedback the consultants received from the engagement sessions included that participants did not fully understand the scope of the project, and that the areas within the IPCA were used by Métis communities for hunting, fishing, berry picking and recreational use.
Respondents also indicated that they felt it was important to maintain habitat for wildlife as well as retain cultural and heritage sites.
They agreed that there should be emphasis on stewardship and sustainability, but that there needed to be consideration on how jobs or economic development fit within an IPCA.
Engagement respondents also shared a desire to contribute to management and monitoring through something like an Indigenous-led guardian program