The Key to Saving Wood Buffalo: Re-imagined Governance and Power Sharing

June 20, 2022
By: admin

The Key to Saving Wood Buffalo: Re-imagined Governance and Power Sharing

Published [post_published]
Gillian Chow-Fraser

This blog post is the third in a series of blogs highlighting the importance of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta to Indigenous peoples and their leadership in saving it. Read part one (a brief Indigenous history of Wood Buffalo) here and part two (who stands up for Wood Buffalo?) here.

The Peace River flows into Wood Buffalo National Park, eventually converging with the Athabasca River at the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The Peace River flows into Wood Buffalo National Park, eventually converging with the Athabasca River at the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.

The failures of working in isolation and the need to set more plates at the table

The influences that have negatively impacted Wood Buffalo National Park come from far away. Both the threats and the impacts are felt across borders, affected by processes across provincial, territorial, and federal jurisdictions, each with regulations of varying strengths.

The negative impacts that culminate in the Wood Buffalo National Park disproportionately affect Indigenous communities. However, Indigenous peoples are not the ones making the decisions that drive the persistence of the influences, nor are they often meaningfully engaged in the governance processes that could change those processes for the better. 

The issues are looming and complex. When faced with problems of such an overwhelming scale, the solution lies in inviting the impacted communities to the table, not in shutting the door on them. It may seem daunting to re-imagine governance structures that have been historically built to focus on the role of colonial governments as the sole decision makers, but it is clear that power sharing with Indigenous communities will be key to solving even our most pressing environmental problems.

The landscape of Wood Buffalo National Park is diverse, including patches of wetlands, forests, and open water. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The landscape of Wood Buffalo National Park is diverse, including patches of wetlands, forests, and open water. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Seventeen simple steps to improving our park

In 2016, a Reactive Monitoring Mission requested by the UN investigated the threats to Wood Buffalo by spending ten days interviewing Indigenous community members, Elders, researchers, and government officials about its history and challenges. The key take-away from the report was 17 recommendations for Canada that would improve the outlook for the park. 

In broad terms, the recommendations aim to create a genuine partnership with First Nations and Métis communities to govern and manage the park as key decision makers. In practice, these recommendations call for stronger partnering with Indigenous communities on water management across jurisdictions, impact assessments, and environmental monitoring; employing government staff with skills necessary for building relationships with Indigenous communities; and strengthening existing governance mechanisms to co-manage the park.

The Athabasca River. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The Athabasca River. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Cooperative management as a tool to heal injustices

The UN’s Reactive Monitoring Mission report calls for partnering with Indigenous communities on governance issues that affect Wood Buffalo. While “governance issues” can sound complex and overwhelming, these simply refer to the regulations, policies, and processes that shape the ways in which land, water, and resources are used and regulated inside and outside of the park. “Cooperative management” is one possible mechanism that can achieve meaningful partnerships with Indigenous communities to manage the park and its threats.

So, what is cooperative management?

In a simplified way, governing resource management and conservation has been historically fully controlled by the provincial and/or federal governments. Cooperative management broadens that control to include varying levels of partnership with other groups, such as Indigenous communities. Depending on the level of control, or power, shared between government and the other group, cooperative management could look like any of the following: government consultations, cooperative decision making, joint decision making, or delegated decision making.

Fall landscape in Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo by Garth Lenz.
Fall landscape in Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo by Garth Lenz.

A plan for cooperative management in Wood Buffalo National Park

A few years after the Reactive Monitoring Mission, the Canadian government made its attempt to take the 17 recommendations and put them to work in an Action Plan. 

In many ways, the Action Plan creates a standard for management intent within Wood Buffalo National Park that is far more progressive than most other national parks in Canada. It boasts 142 actions, and assigns responsibilities for the various actions to provincial, territorial, or federal governments depending on jurisdiction and authorities. At its core, it strives to align management priorities with those of the eleven Indigenous communities within the Wood Buffalo area

Inside the park, the main challenge for planners is to adapt decision-making mechanisms to effectively share power with Indigenous communities. In 2014, a Cooperative Management Committee was created to include participation from Indigenous partners. The Mission Report describes the Committee as “enabl[ing] a partially effective form of consultation rather than full cooperation at this stage,” as not all Indigenous communities chose to participate, and the Committee had limited direct involvement in decision-making. The Committee, and many actions in the Action Plan, should be seen as the first step in an evolving process to ensure Indigenous communities are actual decision-makers in the park.

The Wood Buffalo Action Plan contains 142 actions to restore the ecological integrity of the park. Image from Parks Canada.
The Wood Buffalo Action Plan contains 142 actions to restore the ecological integrity of the park. Image from Parks Canada.

Outside the park, the federal government is challenged to suitably address governance issues across borders. Though Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and various federal agencies are all assigned responsibility for certain actions, different jurisdictions and authorities can show variable willingness to take those roles seriously. 

For example, the Action Plan commits to monitoring water quality in the Athabasca, but cites existing provincial regulations as suitably meeting that goal. However, a unilateral decision in Alberta suspended many monitoring requirements for oil sands projects in May, giving companies a free pass on monitoring water, air, and wildlife in the oil sands. The decision was made without any consultation, resulting in strong pushback from downstream Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities with concerns about impacts on Wood Buffalo and water quality, and even triggering legal action by three First Nations in the oil sands region

Thus, the threats to Wood Buffalo are complicated not only because they are far outside the park, but because the actors contributing to its decline may not be willing to change if they feel the responsibility lies elsewhere.

The next checkpoint for Wood Buffalo National Park this December

CPAWS Northern Alberta is closely following the on-the-ground implementation of the Action Plan (or lack thereof in some cases). And in December 2020, the federal government is due to provide an update report on the implementation of the Action Plan. We will clearly articulate the ongoing struggles with the Action Plan and the lack of adequate resources to address the complexities of governance issues and power sharing. 

If the Action Plan is implemented with urgency and intent, it will be a critical step forward for improving not only the ecological health of the park, but also relations between Indigenous communities and the federal government. We aspire to a Wood Buffalo that is tended to and used by its original caretakers, with healthy ecosystems that are protected for generations to come.

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