Are Alberta’s Parks Tomorrow’s Coal Mines?

Alberta’s UCP Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon is planning on partially closing 20 parks, and handing over management of 164 parks to private companies— and internal disclosures suggest a further sell-off of Alberta’s parks is in the works. Alberta has also rescinded the 1976 Coal Development Policy, raising the possibility of open-pit coal mines in Alberta’s Rockies and foothills. Join Team Advantage as we discuss the sell-off of parks, and work to imagine what parks could look like in an era of Land Back and climate change.

Narrator: Every summer, thousands of pleasure-seeking tourists head for the great outdoor playgrounds of America, and the favourite spot is this wonderland of nature called Jellystone National Park. But while these eager beaver motorists are trying to get into beautiful Jellystone Park, one rugged individualist is trying to get out!

Yogi Bear: I have had it, Boo Boo. I’m gonna bust out of here.

Boo Boo Bear: How come, Yogi?

Yogi Bear: Every day, it’s the same old thing. “Look at the bears, look at the bears, look at the bears!” Sheesh!

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to patreon.com/albertaadvantage and support our work with a monthly donation.

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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. Today, we are going to be talking about parks in Alberta and in Canada more broadly, as well as the privatization of them by Jason Kenney’s UCP government and one of our favourite topics, coal — although we’re going to be talking about it in a not-so-flattering way. So, basically, what this episode is going to look like is: we’re going to be talking about the attacks on our parks from Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government, why those are bad, what’s important about parks that we stand to lose. But we also want to move beyond merely talking reacting to the UCP’s cuts — although we will briefly talk about the NDP’s bizarre response — and start thinking about possible futures for Canada’s parks in which we confront their colonial history and expand their scope and think about what parks would look like in a society that was good. Joining me today on Team Advantage is Sean —

Sean: Hello.

Kate: Rory —

Rory: Hello.

Kate: And Joel.

Joel: Hello hello.

Kate: Jason Nixon, who is the UCP environment and parks minister, is planning on partially closing twenty parks and giving management of 164 parks to private companies. There’s documents from Nixon’s office, which were obtained through an Access of Information request by the Canadians Parks and Wildlife Society, that have shown they’re also planning on letting some parks pass into empty Crown land where they can either be completely sold off or re-designated as agricultural land. And, while Nixon promised in early March that no Crown land would be sold off, literally two weeks later, the province placed a 65 hectare plot east of Taber on auction. Those same internal documents from the UCP have also shown a shift in park management to what they describe as “keeping several provincial Crown jewels while deregulating everything else.” So those Crown jewels are going to be the big, iconic parks that draw in tourism and where land can be more easily commodified, and everything else is going to be parks in other places in the province that are maybe more important for conservation reasons, and that’s what is going to be, more likely, deregulated and privatized.

Sean: Yeah, so there was a quote in these documents — it was in a presentation being given to the department — that said, “We could even phase this in —” (this being the deregulation) “— so that the public doesn’t see massive reorganization and massive deregulation at once.” So, their strategy here is to essentially do this over a long enough period of time that the public is incapable of really grasping how much of our park land and protected areas are being deregulated.

Rory: So why would they do this? It doesn’t seem to fit the mandate of Alberta Parks, which is to preserve our province’s landscapes for future generations, if we’re going to privatize and deregulate some of those landscapes that we currently have under protection. And it certainly won’t save any money — Nixon’s own toadies even told him that, if anything, this plan will likely cost the government more money, at least in the short term. Part of this, of course, is purely ideological; conservatives don’t put much stock in things like natural rights and view our pristine landscapes as potential ATV tracks and cabin real estate. But there’s also an economic reason, albeit one that is also extremely ideological — it’s coal. We’re bringing back coal.

Kate: So, although there are five open-pit coal mines in BC along the Alberta border, the last such mine on the Alberta side actually closed in the early 1980s, and this is because, in 1976, then-premier Peter Lougheed developed a coal development policy which restricted open-pit mines across most of the province’s Rocky Mountains and the foothills. And this policy basically had dual goals. One was of increasing government royalties, and the other was of protecting sensitive lands. So, what the policy basically did is it established four categories of lands in saying, “No development will be permitted unless the government is satisfied that it may proceed without irreparable harm to the environment.” So, category one, which is where all coal development was forbidden, encompassed mostly the Rocky Mountains — so it spanned about 700 kilometers from the US border north to what is right now Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park. Category two, which is where open-pit mines were off-limits, covered lands mostly to the east; so, this is the mountains, the foothills, areas like that. And then categories three and four generally trended further eastward towards the plains, and these saw much fewer restrictions. And for the last 44 years, this policy has protected some of Alberta’s most iconic landscapes; you know, the type of landscapes that are literally on the five dollar bill. Thermal coal mines were owned and operated on the prairies in the 1970s and ‘80s. This is – in Alberta, we’ve got pretty low-quality coal, to be perfectly frank. So this coal is mostly used to generate electricity. In the mountains, where there’s higher-quality coal, you can actually use that to make steel, and that’s because the coal that’s found in the mountains is going to be much harder, so that means it’s going to burn at a much higher temperature and can be used for industrial reasons. And so it’s primarily mined for export; it’s quite valuable, and companies in British Columbia actually make billions of dollars this way.

Joel: So, on June 1st, the United Conservative Government of premier Jason Kenney rescinded the coal policy, and open-pit mines are likely set for development in southwestern Alberta. There’s the promise of a few hundred jobs in the area, but this must be weighed against losses to tourism opportunities and other less intense and destructive land uses. Coal production and use is clearly very environmentally harmful. In BC, mining in the Rockies adversely affects drinking water reserves and wildlife health, and pollution travels downstream to US states.

Rory: So, areas like Bighorn, which were once considered or development into a new provincial park under the NDP government, could also become coal mining centres. The Alberta Energy Regulator still enforces environmental rules related to coal exploration and development, but its budget has been recently cut and has been the subject of other red tape reductions. Coal is another volatile fossil fuel with notorious boom and bust cycles — like oil and gas — and an influx of jobs in the industry seems unlikely, even with every other UCP scheme. A good example of this is the town of Grand Cache in northern Alberta where, in the late 1960s, the government spent, actually, quite a bit of money on building this brand new planned town as part of this huge open-pit coal mine which has gone through many cycles of boom and bust and closed down a few years ago entirely, which is, of course, a disaster for the town. And if you go up and look at it, you can see, on Google Maps, the huge scar on the landscape. I do recommend that people also look at the BC side of the border for Crowsnest Pass, and you can just see all these huge open-pit coal mines up there and what they do to the mountains. Not to give Lougheed too much props for highly regulating and protecting a lot of the landscape of the Rockies from coal mining; in part, that was because, when this happened in 1976, oil prices were incredibly high. As we know, oil superseded coal as the primary energy source from fossil fuels. This essentially meant that Alberta could tell coal companies to screw off because the value of oil meant that we could approach this — parks were a kind of luxury where we could forego coal development because we had so much oil wealth, we didn’t have to worry about coal jobs. And that’s kind of how it went for the next 40 or so years afterwards, because oil prices were high and coal is not particularly highly-employing — at least the open-pit coal mines — compared to oil. Now that oil prices are very low, you see a Kenney government that is searching around for any kind of resource extraction development, and, because it is a kind of fossil fuel, the Kenney government is quite interested in doing this.

Kate: So, parks are a really complex topic in Canada because of settler colonialism — and we’re going to go much more in depth on that later in the episode — but there are two things that parks can do very well and that are at the heart of the UCP’s cuts, and this is that parks can act as a public commons that can be fairly easily enjoyed by everyone, and they also act as a tool in conservation biology. Unfortunately, Nixon’s plan is going to make Alberta’s parks much worse at both of these things.

Joel: Part of why parks are good is because they are publicly owned, which ensures a high level of stewardship and facility quality and usually keeps wages high and prices low. Public stewardship means public benefits, and privatizing them jeopardizes these public benefits since private management companies won’t be held to the same standard as the government and will have to operate with the purpose of making a profit. This means worse services, lower wages, and higher prices. It’s part of a larger strategy of deregulation of park land, which will likely lead to many delicate environments getting destroyed.

Sean: The problem with Nixon’s “crown jewel” (in scare quotes) approach is that many of Alberta’s provincial parks are not shiny mountains, but small, important wildlife areas that are protected not because they draw in a lot of tourists, necessarily — although a lot of them tend to — but because they’re necessary for delicate, and sometimes completely unique, prairie ecosystems. It might surprise you to learn that three quarters of Alberta’s endangered species actually live in the grasslands, not the mountains. The mountains have actually been relatively protected from development due to them being inhospitable mountains, but over half of the prairie grassland of Alberta has been completely destroyed, and only 2% of what remains is actually protected. Now, these areas aren’t always the prettiest, necessarily — depending on your perspective; I know there’s a lot of prairie fans here, including myself — but they are vital habitats for various animal and plant species since they preserve something more akin to landscapes before colonization. Plot east of Taber that we mentioned earlier, that was sold off, is a good example of this. Not only is it one of the last large pieces of undeveloped grassland in Alberta, but it’s home to three sensitive species: Sprague’s pipet, the common nighthawk, and the plains spadefoot toad. This was used for grazing by farming, which is actually good for the ecosystem, but it will now likely be bought and turned into a potato field, which is not very good for the ecosystem.

Kate: And if you want to feel even worse about this particular example, here is the ad that went up for the auction for this land. Quote: “The province of Alberta sees the unlimited potential in this quarter and has selected it for sale to the public. Never privately owned and always in pasture, the land offers up unlimited options for added value production to today’s discerning consumers. This consumer will answer the bell for any new owner and produce big yields off the hop.” End quote. So, the province is fully aware of what they are doing in terms of the destruction of this undeveloped grassland that currently exists in Alberta. And all of this is not to mention that, you know, coal is not something we should be investing in right now. We are in a climate crisis; it is a really dangerous time to be on planet Earth, and we urgently need to find new energy sources, reduce energy emissions, and reorganize the entire structure of our lives, and coal is just not really in the picture, particularly the type of coal that’s in Alberta, which — even in the mountains — is not particularly high-grade and is primarily used for electricity generation. That coal does not need to come out of the ground. Period, full stop, end point.

Rory: It’s also questionable whether or not there is even going to be a lot of takers on coal because, much like oil has gone down in this pandemic, coal prices have also plummeted. The capital expenses of creating a new open-pit mine are quite considerable, so we don’t actually know if there are people who are interested in developing coal mines. Although it would not suprise me if Alberta is offering some incredibly sweet subsidy deal for coal mines, which is absolutely the last thing we should be doing.

Joel: What has the response been like from our NDP official opposition? The parks issue seems to be a big, wide-open net for the NDP to jump into, but they’ve landed somewhere else. NDP MLAs have certainly heard extensively from their constituents about Kenney and Nixon’s unpopular plans for parks through several letter-writing campaigns from advocacy groups. Many people affected or passionate about this are mobile, middle-class vehicle owners, and NDP environment and parks critic Martin Schmidt held online town hall-type events where Albertans gave input and feedback.

Kate: What’s been really frustrating about their response to it — and I think Rachel Notley’s most recent call in the legislature for more public consultation — is that it implies that the government plan will be going ahead without pushback, and all we really need is more transparency and more consultation. So Rachel Notley’s most recent press release about this issue was: UCP must hold public hearings before selling, closing parks. Right? So this is part of a continued NDP obsession with the consultation process. And we touched on this in our recent “Bad News” update, where issues like park closures and sales, racism, childcare, these don’t really need more dialogue or consultation. It’s really clear, at this point in time, what a progressive opposition must say, do, and propose.

Joel: Yeah, it’s quite frustrating because what’s not required is a more rigorous progress for the sell-off of Alberta’s parks; what’s required is not selling off Alberta’s parks, right?

Kate: Yeah, it’s just like, you don’t need to enter into this consultation process to decide on an opinion because that opinion, or take, should be informed by your politics, which are developed and nurtured by being part of a political party and part of a party structure. However, we know that that’s not how the NDP operates, so it makes sense, in a way, that they constantly defer to the process and to consultation because they don’t have actually have beliefs and values. And what’s even harder to understand than the technocratic NDP caucus response is the party’s technical approach to it. They launched this campaign in mid-July with an extremely cringey title: “Don’t go breaking my parks”; they did a press conference, a video featuring Notley packing her car to go to the mountains and discussing the UCP’s plans; there’s a promise of these retro-themed campaign stickers to those who sign a petition; Facebook ads featuring photos of, and quotes from, animals about the negative ecological impacts the new changes will have. It’s a very frustrating campaign because it’s very cringey. It’s also extremely devoid of political content; like, it doesn’t actually make a political case for parks and for how they could be improved. And it’s also extremely targeted at upper-middle -class people in Calgary who go to the mountains on the weekend in their SUVs.

Sean: So, the strangest ad of all of these is one that you might have seen floating around Twitter or social media, and it’s of a kangaroo who is a supposed tourist to the parks. And it says, “Don’t go breaking my parks.” And it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. How did the kangaroo get here? [laughs] Aren’t there restrictions on travel right now? Wouldn’t there normally be restrictions on importing animals? But even just, more practically, for an advertising campaign, we are living in a province with some of the most beautiful and majestic animals on the entire planet that are protected by our parks that the UCP government is threatening to cut — you should probably focus on those. Use bison or a grizzly bear or a moose. I don’t know — I think it’s very typical, the NDP’s response, which is usually not just bad and ineffective, but also perplexing and confusing.

Joel: Yeah, it’s frustrating because — well, as the NDP knows, they’ve dabbled in petronationalism also — they could do animal nationalism and try to rally [laughs] support for Alberta animals or something. It is a very strange example of being almost too clever for their own good — it’s like they workshopped this 50% harder than they needed to.

Rory: Yeah, I did not get the joke of the slogan originally; it took me a while.

Kate: I still don’t get it. I assume I’m just too young to get it, is my working title.

Rory: Oh yeah, it is an ancient song, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”

Joel: So it’s based on Elton John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” from 1976. [laughs]

Rory: How much of the NDP caucus was even alive in 1976?

[laughter]

Kate: 20 years before I was born, so.

Joel: Like, who is the intended audience that’s supposed to get the reference? Might just be a generational thing, but because they’re being so cutesy and doing it all on social media, you’re like, “Okay, they must have a certain kind of audience.” But then it’s a reference to a song from 1976, so you’re like, “Okay, maybe it’s a different audience, who knows.”

Sean: And there’s a kangaroo! So —

Joel: Yeah, so they’re trying to get the Aussie vote in there. I don’t understand.

Sean: Plus the response was months late, not very robust, and, again, only pointed the way to more public consultation. So, huge swing and a miss.

Joel: It’s also frustrating because the NDP caucus recently produced a well-researched and detailed school reopening plan due to the COVID-19 pandemic, showing that they’re very capable of doing good, serious work and making political proposals that rival what the government is doing and make people question what the government is doing, and so this should raise the bar on the NDP’s response to a number of issues — like parks — and they seem to be dropping the ball on the parks issue.

Kate: So, where we want to go next with this episode is moving beyond reacting to the cuts and talking about the colonial history of Canada’s parks, and also about what parks would look like in the future. And, so far in this episode, we’ve talked a lot about what we like about parks and what they do well, but, like I said, they have their problems. So the obvious colonial legacy of parks is that, like the rest of Canada, all of that parkland was stolen from Indigenous people that lived here. And Canadian national parks pushed Indigenous people out of the land they lived, hunted, and worshipped on in order to create “pristine” (in a lot of air quotes) wilderness spaces for primarily white tourists, and for settlers more generally. And in fact, in Banff, their first superintendent explicitly believed that the Îyârhe Nakoda First Nations, who lived in the park, should be excluded because “…their destruction” — this is a quote from him — “of the game and their attacks on ornamental trees made their too-frequent visits to the park a matter of great concern.” So you really see here that it was that the creation of the national parks was about creating a very specific type of idealized wilderness that did not mesh with the reality of Indigenous nations living on this land and taking care of it and using it and managing it in very specific ways for centuries and centuries. So, the exclusion of Indigenous people from national parks is a prerequisite to their creation because it’s about creating a type of pristine wilderness which does not really exist and is a very European idea about land, nature, and wilderness more generally.

Sean: Yeah, and I want to add: you can see, back in that quote, when that Superintendent is describing the wildlife as “game” and the trees as being “ornamental,” you can even see that the intended value there was — it’s not like they wanted to keep things pristine for the good of nature, they wanted to keep them pristine for themselves, for white settlers only. It’s such a nakedly evil [laughs] enterprise, and I think a big part of how we need to reform modern parks is really grappling with that and dealing with that. But even beyond that, just under capitalism more generally around the world, parks are always going to be seen as potential profit generators more than anything else, both for the state and for all the businesses allowed to operate in and around those parts — think about Banff and all of the businesses that are so reliant on a steady stream of tourists coming into that national park. You can also see this in how liberal conversations or arguments around parks turn into this argument that they’re good for the economy because of tourism, which, to me, is a very narrow and very shallow way of thinking about parks and probably should not be the paradigm that we put them in.

Kate: Another thing that’s important here, too, is that Indigenous people alive today have very little control of how their land that is currently in national parks is being used. And many parks in Canada do allow First Nations members to access certain sites for ceremonies, and the Métis nation of Alberta has free access to the province’s national parks; the actual management of this land is still completely out of their control.

Rory: Yeah. For example, during the Harper government, the Harper government did consider privatizing aspects of the national parks, particularly in cases where — some national parks are also considerably more profitable than others. So, Banff National Park; it’s a very, very profitable park because so many people go through there, so you would end up with, obviously, Indigenous people having no say over what happens to the land, or if a government decided to privatize aspects of the management of the park, as well as: it leaves other national parks out to dry because they may not have a great deal of visitors to help pay for their upkeep. So it was putting parks, essentially, on a business footing without any regard for what kind of ecosystems you are attempting to preserve.

Joel: This ends up creating rationalizations for parks that turn on parks’ ability to turn a profit; they’re good for the economy because of tourism.  It creates parks that are more expensive to visit and intentionally draw massive crowds of tourists that these places can’t really handle footprint-wise. And it also results in parks being under-funded and under-equipped to actually fulfill their mandate of conservation since priority is given to bringing in, and facilitating, tourists. So let’s not stop at just trying to defend what parks are now, but let’s try to imagine the park of the future.

Kate: Obviously, parks and protected areas should be expanded, both in size and in funding — not just in Canada, but around the world. To make a really basic argument, parks are really cool and fun. It’s nice to go camping and hiking and look at a nice landscape and see neat animals, and we should make it so there are more parks that allow more people to do this as easily as possible. They should be free, they should be easier to get to if you don’t have a private automobile through shuttles, public transit, and they should be way better staffed and taken care of. They should have way more resources, the materials they have should be updated more regularly, there should be more staff, etc, etc. — because, by lifting the pressures on parks to fund themselves and to be productive capitalist enterprises, or enterprises in a capitalist system, parks can then stop putting all their efforts on maximizing tourists and growing the economy and more into ensuring that the human and the natural elements of parks are able to happily and healthily coexist in a way that is good for the land, and also to put their energy and time and resources into righting some of the historic wrongs of parks through co-management, returning management of land, things like that that we’re going to get into later.

Sean: Yeah, and it’s important that parks can rededicate themselves towards their mandates of actually being places that try to preserve flora and fauna and these ecosystems, because parks aren’t just for us. I mean, we’re living in the middle of a sixth mass extinction event driven by, of course, multiple interlocking causes — you know, climate change, the movement of people around the world, over-harvesting, etc — but a big one of these, and one that we can easily prevent, is habitat loss. So, through destructive human action — whether that’s extractive industries, industrial farming, or plain old urban developments — we have made many, many environments uninhabitable for the species that used to live there. Species are growing extinct because of this, while others are having their numbers dwindle as they’re forced to relocate to other habitats. One of my favourite examples of this — well, not favourite, because it’s extremely sad, but most interesting examples, perhaps — is grizzly bears. They were traditionally — and by traditionally, I mean before prairie development — they were prairie animals. They hunted and lived on the prairie. They weren’t really mountain-dwelling animals like we know them today; they lived there, but their major population density was on the plains. But because of colonial developments, they have been moved out of their “normal habitats” — quote, unquote — and into the mountains we know of today. So this is why parks are important, because they allow areas to not be developed and stop animals from having that pressure to have to move, to relocate, and, ultimately, die off.

Joel: Also, undeveloped spaces help mitigate climate change because those spaces very effectively, and often, act as carbon sinks.

Sean: And the prairies are a good example of this. Despite not having very many trees, grasslands can actually absorb a ton of carbon, and getting rid of them is limiting the grasslands’ ability to actually mitigate the effects of CO2 pollution.

Kate: The prairies whip, and in order to stop this ecological catastrophe that we’re living through from getting any worse, we definitely need to have more areas in which our societies collectively agree to minimize and to carefully manage our impacts on the environment. And parks and other protected areas are a really big tool in doing this. Currently, only about 15% of Earth’s land area is protected from development — and we’ve been using “development” maybe a little imprecisely in this episode, so I want to make it clear that “development,” here, means Western-style development, not just any interaction with nature. There’s a UN working group that proposes that this number of protected lands on the planet would have to rise to at least 30% by 2030 if we want to avoid complete ecological collapse. So this is an absolute moral and ecological imperative for our planet going forward.

Sean: So, the other big issue with parks, and one that we talked about earlier and something that has to be addressed, is the — and Canada isn’t alone with this, other colonized countries also have to grapple with this — parks need to be decolonized. Steps need to be taken towards this throughout national and provincial parks. But the end goal should be not just to pay lip service towards Indigenous people or to do very shallow, very surface-level adoptions of certain language or certain aesthetic principles, but instead, actually taking steps to give back control of this land to the First Nations that used to live in these places and allowing them to actually live and work in the parks. So, a great quote from Steven Nitah, who is a former Chief of the Lutsel Ke Dene First Nations in the Northwest Territories, is: “There’s no reason why we can’t take all of the national parks and provincial parks that exist across the country and reintroduce Indigenous peoples into those lands with their right recognized and to give them responsibility in the management and operation of those protected areas.” And that’s a great example because the Lutsel Ke Dene actually co-govern a new protected area in the Northwest Territories called the Thaidene Nene alongside federal and provincial governments, in order to not only protect the bears, caribou, and other amazing animal and plant species that live there, but to also ensure an economic future for the tribe that will be living and working there. While this situation is not perfect — in my opinion, it shouldn’t necessarily be co-governed by Indigenous, just plain old governed — it is still a good example of what other parks in the country can start to move towards. The Lutsel Ke Dene are in complete control of the on-the-ground management of the park, employing members as rangers, guides, and other staff members while also ensuring  — and this is very important — that members of surrounding First Nations are still able to use that land to hunt and make a living.

Kate: And this framework, I think, for parks, is sometimes really at odds with Western environmentalism and how we are taught in our society — speaking here as a settler — to think about the environment, because we are often given this idea of nature as something that is fundamentally separate from ourselves and from our society and that nature is something that we inherently ruin by coming into contact with it. And it’s definitely true that people, for sure, have the capacity to really mess up the natural world; we’re also intrinsically a part of the natural world and the separation between the wilderness and civilization is basically completely invented. Especially in North America — ecosystems have been inhabited by people here for millennia. And I think this idea, too, of nature and the wilderness as something pristine and separated from human civilization, is rooted in really racist and colonial ideas of Indigenous people as the noble savage who just walked around North America before colonization, being at one with nature and picking food and eating it off the ground. But that’s not true — Indigenous nations in what’s now Canada actively managed landscapes, often over extremely long time periods. We’re on, like, ten, twenty, thirty year timescales of doing agroecology on the landscape. You know, there’s controlled burning, there’s specific ways of hunting. So it’s not like the wilderness existed before and now civilization does — active management of landscapes does not necessarily mean the destruction of those landscapes. A really good example of this can actually be found in Banff, where many areas that are now forested used to be prairie due to controlled burning by Indigenous people pre-colonization. There’s basically no such thing as a pure, natural state for nature, and we shouldn’t be too caught up with that when we think about what parks are and how we can interact with them.

Sean: Another really good example of that is earthworms. Did you know that earthworms are an invasive species? They are not native to North America. So, if we were to return things to a pre-colonized landscape, we would have to get rid of every single earthworm in Canada. And you know, folks, I honestly don’t think that that’s an effort worth undertaking. I think there’s better uses of our time.

Joel: I think a lot of this has to do, also, with the failure of the settler imagination to think about having any kind of relationship or engagement with the natural world that like isn’t the one we have now under capitalism. It’s very much just looking at the world around you as a resource to input into a manufacturing process that ends up creating products that you then sell, or consuming spaces as leisure spaces or as tourist locations. Just because we don’t have categories beyond these, for the most part, it makes it really difficult to envision what it is that First Nations peoples were talking about.

Kate: Yeah, absolutely. And besides — settlers actively disturb  parks plenty with tourist towns, highways, ski resorts, etc etc, so I think tut-tutting at Indigenous people who want to hunt or live in this territory is extremely hypocritical.

Sean: And, of course, when saying this, we’re not saying that we should go nuts developing all of our natural spaces — of course — it’s so important that we try to deliberately set aside space that we keep purposely undeveloped in the Western sense  — by that I mean, like,  mini-malls — and protected, but there is a big difference between shutting a place off from human contact to keep it quote-unquote “pristine” and actively managing that space to ensure its long-term health, and to mediate the relationship between human and non-human species. Because Joel’s right — our imagination has been extremely limited about the ways that we can interact with nature.

Kate: I think this is a process that can be partially done or examined and steps toward it can be made under capitalism, but I also think that what we’re talking about would absolutely require decommodifying our society on a really massive level, because the fact is — if we just gave every provincial park right now, in Alberta, to the Indigenous nations of Treaty 6, 7, and 8, those nations  would still have to operate those parks in a capitalist world system that is organized around land as a commodity, as an extractive relationship, as a profit-generating tool, and would not be able to completely fulfill what we’re talking about in terms of actually building new relationships on this land. So I think it’s really important to see parks and decommodifying them as part of a larger political project towards decommodifying our society more generally and moving away from capitalism. It reminds me, kind of, of the co-op argument, where we tend to think we can have these decommodified islands in the middle of capitalism, and while those things are certainly good, and they can provide really good models for alternative ways of doing things, they are ultimately not going to be enough if they’re situated within a larger world system that is going to put material constraints on these structures and force them to behave in certain ways under capitalism.

Sean: Another problem with this idea of just having pristine natural areas fenced off from quote-unquote “human civilization” is that this creates these biological islands that stop animals from being able to travel from one area to another. This is really bad because it limits the genetic diversity in these places, and it sort of forces these animals, inevitably, to try to break out of these islands, which can cause animal death, it can cause things like humans and animals having interactions that they’re not expecting; it really ends up with nature being constrained and limited and really not having the effect that this 30% Earth demand would actually require, which is actual, linked areas that animals can travel between. But the problem, of course, is that there’s often cities and towns and things like that in between, so what we need to start doing is really getting over this separation that we’ve put in our own minds between wilderness and humanity (or civilization), and to take this more holistic approach that facilitates the movement of species between different ecosystems’ environments and ensures this genetic diversity and this almost rewilding of certain areas. I want to give an example: there was this museum exhibit about rewilding Vancouver that depicted a Vancouver that put a lot of money and time into ensuring that wild animals could move through the city and gave a lot of concept art of how things like underpasses could be added to bridges, or shoulders could be added around communities that allow large animals to move through these areas without having to come into contact with people, while also creating more beautiful, natural spaces within the city itself. You know, this is a difficult prospect because it would require us to, as a culture, become a bit more comfortable with things like bears and large animals maybe being in places other than just Banff, just being a car ride away, and maybe being a bit closer to us, but I think that’s probably good for us in the long term; I think relearning our relationship with the natural world is something that can only benefit all of us and is something that we should definitely be working towards.

Kate: For me, it’s a really interesting counterfactual to try and imagine what this all would look like if it was in practice, but it’s also interesting because, honestly, it’s pretty easy for me to imagine, say, protected grasslands in southern Alberta that are owned, managed, and controlled by the Piikani Nation. Maybe they come to have a contract relationship or partnership with Alberta Parks, who they allow to run the campgrounds there, and you can get the bus down on weekends, and there’s really well-paid staff who tell you about grasslands, and you get to see cool animals and look at wildflowers, and they have a relationship with the farming cooperative that allows grazing at certain times of the year and in certain types of agroecological management processes. That is not something that is so far out of the realm of the possible, right? That is absolutely something that could exist if, you know, we didn’t live in hell and we transformed and decommodified our society, which is always the rub. But I think it’s always interesting for me to imagine what that would look like in the various axes of justice that such a project would necessarily incorporate.

Joel: What I find really interesting in your thought experiment there, Kate, is that on the one hand, it sounds incredible because it’s not subject to market pressures or whatever, right? But on the other hand, it sounds so practical and normal and good that you kind of wonder, “Wow, we must be really stupid to not really entertain doing that right now.” Conversations about alternatives to capitalism often tend to occupy that space where, on the one hand, it seems fantastic and impossible, and, simultaneously, it seems like the most practical thing, and you can’t believe we’re not doing it already.

Kate: So, in conclusion, Alberta parks are a land of contrasts. Obviously, privatizing and deregulating parks in Alberta is bad and is part of a broader UCP on trade unions, on commons, on public spaces, and on the environment more generally. Unfortunately, the NDP in opposition and their campaign is weak as hell because they refuse to do politics and are obsessed with the process and with consultation instead of actually defending parks and making a political argument for what they are and what they could be. Parks in Canada have a really violent colonial history, but with some deep work and some deep thought, they could absolutely be part of not only a massive conservation project, which we need to maintain the planet and its ecology and biodiversity, but also part of a broader substantive decolonization. Unfortunately, right now in Canada, sometimes it feels like when I say decolonization, people hear “We should do land acknowledgements.” And that’s all well and good, but real land acknowledgement is giving management and control of land to people who are the original and rightful owners of it as part of a process of reparations and of figuring out how to build a new society and live together on this territory in a way that is non-extractive, non-violent, and non-colonial. Now, we’ve gone over the more substantive changes that parks would require if they were to be better and to be part of a good society, but I would love to hear from everyone on Team Advantage right now — what is a more surface-level aesthetic change that you would make to parks as part of our new and improved parks system in Alberta? Joel?

Joel: So, I really like hiking, and one of the problems with hiking is that it’s very auto-dependent — like, you basically need a private automobile in order to get to the trail and in order to do your hike, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because you end up having tons of vehicles leaving a city, going to all these trail heads, and then all migrating back at the end of the day. It would make a lot more sense to have shuttle buses that, for example, can drop you off at a trail head at a set time and then pick you up however many hours later once you’ve gone through the trail and come back. So, shuttle buses, ideally electrified or something, but even just a shuttle bus would be great.

Rory: I think, as somebody who would like to hike more, that we should smooth out the mountains a bit so they’re easier to hike. Because honestly, naturally, those mountains will eventually erode, and so we can’t be too obsessed with this idea of pristine nature. So let’s blow them up a bit. Not too much.

Kate: Alright.

[laughter]

Kate: Moving on, Rory. Sean?

Sean: Mine was a toss-up. So, part of me wants to wish for — because when I went hiking in China, on the top of one of the mountains we got up to, there was a fried chicken restaurant. And, you know, getting to the top of a mountain and having a fried chicken restaurant be there is pretty good. But that might be a little unrealistic, so I’ll just settle for illustrated birding guides handed to every single person who walks into a national or provincial park.

Rory: And that way, you can identify which bird is best for deep-frying.

Sean: Okay, well, no — those are protected birds. They’re not for deep-frying.

Kate: They’re special. And my wish is actually related to Sean’s, which is: I wish we could update some of the signage in provincial parks, because I love — more than almost anything else in the world — a really good interpretive trail, but it is so clear that, when you are in provincial parks in Alberta, that some of these interpretive trails have not been updated for years, if not decades and decades. So I would love if all of these interpretive trail signage could be updated and modernized and could be better and more interesting. Those are just a few of the things that will change when our society becomes good and we get a park system that kicks ass. We hope you’ve learned something from this episode about parks privatization, coal, the colonial history of the park system, why parks are good, and how they can be better in the future. On behalf of everyone here at Team Advantage, take care out there and have a good one. Bye, everyone!

All: Goodbye!

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at ricochet.media. Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and weird tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.

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