Political turmoil reaches boiling point over Bighorn plan

Tensions over the future of Bighorn Country in Alberta have increased dramatically, reaching hysteria from the province’s two major political parties.

Turmoil over the proposed parks area, situated between Jasper and Banff national parks, began to bubble last week when NDP Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips announced upcoming in-person townhall-style meetings would be cancelled.

Phillips cancelled the meetings after she said there were nine documented incidents of seven government employees being harassed. Some of those cases were serious, she said, and a venue wanted to cancel a meeting due to complaints.

“It is unfortunate that there is a small minority of people … for whom their operational behaviour is quite frankly undemocratic,” she told reporters.

United Conservative Party members seethed that the meetings were being cancelled. While Phillips has set up new telephone meetings in communities, UCP House Leader Jason Nixon accused the NDP of lacking transparency.

UCP anger grew when Phillips said she “misspoke” when she said there were open RCMP investigations into the matter.

The RCMP has confirmed complaints have been made, but said there are no open investigations.

“The Minister did not misspeak,” said UCP Solicitor General critic Mike Ellis in a statement, charging that Phillips lied instead.

“The Minister should resign and if she refuses to, the Premier should remove her.”

Premier Rachel Notley has said she won’t remove Phillips and stands behind her.

Notley took aim at the UCP, saying the former Progressive Conservative government failed to protect the land when in power and that the UCP has been spreading misinformation about the Bighorn plan and public consultations.

“It’s a challenging situation because there is a lot of passion on the matter but, at the same time, we need to maintain those forums,” she said.

Much of the discontent over the proposal stems from a sense that some people don’t trust the government. They worry promises won’t be kept and changes to the plan will be secretly made.

However, political commentators have noted the back-and-forth has become over-blown, especially given that changes in the $40-million parks plan would be minor.

All the plan would do is upgrade existing campsites and add new ones, as well see the hiring of more conservation officers in the area.

There would be no changes to industrial activity, random camping would still be allowed, existing grazing leases would be honoured and current trails within the parks would remain in place.

As well, Phillips said the Bighorn won’t become an expensive tourism attraction and the proposal doesn’t include government-funded facilities for foreign tourists.

She said the province is re-evaluating engagement plans and exploring rescheduling public information drop-in sessions.

People can fill out an online survey on the plan, as well as find more information on the telephone town-halls by visiting talkaep.alberta.ca.

A poll by Edmonton firm Advanis has found 73 percent of Albertans support the proposal, while only 16 per cent oppose and 11 percent ar e indifferent.

The poll was commissioned by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Alberta chapter. The sample size was 1,077 people, who were randomly selected by telephone and later required to take a survey online. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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