Radio — Defending the provincial parks system in Alberta

[EDIT: Later in the day this episode was released, it was announced that this campaign had in fact won a major victory! Check out this media release for more details.]

Taylor Maton is the conservation outreach coordinator with CPAWS Northern Alberta, a regional chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In recent months, the main focus of her work has been the Defend Alberta Parks campaign. Scott Neigh interviews her about the Alberta government’s initiative to close and delist a substantial proportion of parks in the province, and about the campaign’s work to oppose it.

When a government gets elected with an agenda of cutting programs that people depend on, privatizing public services and assets, undermining laws and regulations that keep people safe and healthy, and making life worse for workers, it’s always a bit unpredictable which specific changes are going to be the ones that lead people to stand up and say, “No!” On the one hand, this can be a challenge for activists and organizers trying to mobilize people against that kind of neoliberal austerity. At the same time, however, this unpredictability can also be a source of hope – sometimes, some piece of cutting or deregulating or privatizing that might seem trivial and easy to the government enacting it ends up sparking outrage, even among erstwhile government supporters.

Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (or UCP) government in Alberta has been busy since it won office in 2019. It has cut taxes for big corporations to the tune of at least $4 billion. It has made deep, deep cuts to education, health care, and other areas. It has managed to seriously alienate physicians and other health care providers, and has proposed laying off 11,000 Alberta Health Service workers in the middle of a global pandemic. And it has launched major attacks on workers more generally. Recent polls have found that the popularity of the UCP and Kenney have taken a nose dive. Many analysts explain that with respect to Kenney’s handling of the pandemic, which has seen cases in Alberta skyrocketing, and there is certainly no shortage of other issues that might be prompting Albertans to start saying “No!”

In this mix is an issue that the UCP political strategists probably thought would pass with hardly anyone noticing, let alone objecting. But they were wrong.

Back in February, the government of Alberta announced plans to close 20 provincial parks and remove another 164 from the park system. They estimated that this measure would save about $5 million. The initial announcement seemed to suggest that sale of parks to private owners could be part of this, though subsequently the government has clarified that the land would technically stay in public hands while ownership of facilities and management authority for the area might be privatized.

Maton and her colleagues have a number of concerns with the Alberta government’s plan. Given that this closure and delisting would affect 37% of Alberta parks, it would likely mean Albertans would end up with less recreational access to wilderness areas. They are skeptical that the changes would result in the promised cost savings. And Maton feels that opening the land up to for-profit commercial management and use “is not the way that we should be going.”

Moreover, opponents are very clear that this would move both Alberta and Canada away from achieving important conservation goals. The lands in question would be shifted from the purview of the Provincial Parks Act to, potentially, the Public Lands Act, which would drastically weaken protections. In particular, the delisted lands would be opened up to industrial activities like mining, commercial forestry, and fossil fuel development.

In response, CPAWS Northern Alberta, CPAWS Southern Alberta, and the Alberta Environmental Network came together to launch the Defend Alberta Parks campaign. The timing of the campaign has corresponded almost exactly to the COVID-19 pandemic, so its activities have been online and distanced. They have done a number of highly successful virtual town halls and webinars. They have provided online tools to make it easier for Albertans to write to their provincial representatives. They’ve made extensive use of social media. They have distributed stickers and fact sheets. And in August, they launched a lawn sign campaign.

As a result of this campaign, there has been what Maton describes as “unprecedent pushback from Albertans” against the plan to delist parks. More than 20,000 letters have been sent to MLAs and the Minister of Environment. More than 12,000 signs are now staked in lawns across Alberta. According to Maton, the campaign has mobilized people across a number of the usual divides in Alberta politics, including urban/rural and partisan affiliation.

At this point, the Alberta government’s plans for moving forward on the issue are not clear. There is currently no public timeline, though the UCP caucus has launched its own effort to communicate the government’s position to constituents. Maton says that it is important to keep up the pressure, and she encourages all Albertans to write their MLA, order a lawn sign, and demonstrate their opposition on social media.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Wikimedia / Harpsz

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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