Minister cites ‘bullying’ in cancelling public meetings on Alberta parks plan

EDMONTON — Alberta’s environment minister has cancelled public information sessions about proposed new parks in a region known as Bighorn Country, citing “bullying” and ”abuse” which she says make it impossible to guarantee people’s safety.

“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,” Shannon Phillips said in a news release Saturday.

“I call on all of my elected colleagues to denounce the bullying and harassment being faced by Bighorn supporters,” she noted, referring to people who favour the government’s parks plan.

The New Democrats in November announced eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks.

Fourteen public and invitation-only information sessions were scheduled in five communities between December and Jan. 31.

But Phillips said Saturday that upcoming sessions for Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton will be cancelled. She said the government will re-evaluate its engagement plans in order to ensure people in those communities ”can participate safely.”

Phillips said the government will schedule two telephone town hall sessions for residents of Drayton Valley and Red Deer and that the public engagement period will be extended to Feb. 15.

“We will continue to engage with all Albertans in the weeks to come. We believe our proposal for Bighorn Country sets the stage to achieve the right balance of environmental, economic, Indigenous and social values and goals,” Phillips said.

Jason Nixon, the United Conservative Party member for the Sundre area, issued a response condemning intimidation — but said he hasn’t personally seen any.

“I have personally attended a number of public events regarding the Bighorn, and while attendees were very concerned with the proposal, they were also completely civil,” Nixon said in a statement.

Nixon has said that many people remain uncertain about the plan’s impact on industry and land use, and suggested it could take another year to gather input. He said the government has been overly reliant on information from environmental groups and has only recently opened up the process.

Nixon repeated on Saturday a previous accusation that the government is trying to ram the plan through before an expected spring election.

“It is completely unacceptable for the NDP to arbitrarily cancel in-person consultation. Sadly, it’s increasingly clear that the NDP isn’t interested in listening to those who live and work in the region,” he said.

More than three dozen retired biologists, however, have accused Nixon of spreading misinformation. They said in an open letter to Phillips and Premier Rachel Notley that they want the provincial government to stick with the plan to conserve the area.

The plan for the new parks calls for a variety of permitted activities and offers $40 million over five years for campsites and other infrastructure. Off-highway vehicles, horse packing and hunting would continue, although with new restrictions. Grazing leases would continue and no existing trails would be closed.

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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