Opinion: Cancellation of Bighorn Country meetings is a big mistake

The reported nastiness of a few Albertans shouldn’t prevent ordinary people from having their say.

The provincial government’s decision to cancel a series of town hall meetings to discuss the protection and management of Bighorn Country is a mistake.

The idea of a town hall meeting is for government officials to meet face to face with the public, and to some extent, to be held accountable for the proposals they bring forward for discussion.

In this case, the NDP government was to host meetings in Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton to explain its proposal to create Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park and three others adjacent to Banff and Jasper national parks­.

This is a classic example of what politics, at its heart, is all about: the distribution of scarce resources. The intention to set aside lands for parks has run up against the concerns of outdoor recreationists and industry.

Whether one supports their concerns or not, it’s obvious the proposal to restrict the use of Alberta’s public lands would meet with some opposition.

Instead of acknowledging that reality, and welcoming the discussion, the NDP has decided to cancel the town hall meetings, replacing them with two phone-in exercises.

The government cites concern for public safety for its decision to quash the opportunity for proper public input, saying comments on social media have become worrisome.

“This has led to significant misinformation on the status and substance of the proposal for Bighorn Country and, more recently, allegations of bullying, abuse and concerns over personal safety,” Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said.

“I have heard stories of Albertans afraid to attend community events, Albertans berated in public, Albertans followed home, and Albertans feeling intimidated to not speak their mind or participate in this important discussion.

“These reports are not only deeply concerning, this behaviour is not reflective of the values we all share.”

The minister is correct in her observations, of course. Albertans have always bristled when they’ve been denied a voice, as they should now.

Those who support the government’s vision for nurturing a tremendously important part of Alberta’s natural areas should be able to speak up, free of intimidation.

And those who have concerns about limits on their ability to enjoy the wild space for their own enjoyment should have free and public access to the decision-makers too.

That’s not only how sound public decisions are sometimes arrived at, it’s how government builds confidence in the policy it makes in the public interest.

Confidence doesn’t come from skirting the obligation to consult with the public because of unnamed troublemakers. If the government and others have information about people who have made threats, or engaged in illegal actions, they should contact the police.

It’s interesting, after all, that when individuals who oppose infrastructure projects, such as pipelines, engage with the consultative process, they’re widely considered important voices in the public debate.

When they illegally hang banners from buildings such as the Calgary Tower, they’re seen as adding to the public conversation.

There’s never any talk of short circuiting the public review because of their irresponsible and selfish actions, ones that put their own safety and the safety of others at risk.

The same is true of the public discussion of the NDP’s plan for the Bighorn region: deal harshly with a few troublemakers who would stifle debate and let the people have their say.

Important public decisions such as the NDP’s plans for a wide swath of the province deserve no less. When fear mongering and veiled threats cut short important public conversations, all Albertans should be concerned.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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