Parks Canada is withdrawing from “public engagement of stakeholders” over creating a national park in the South Okanagan-Similkameen.
The federal response came almost a month after B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake wrote a letter to the B.C. Wildlife Federation indicating the province was not prepared to move ahead with the concept, citing a lack of public support in the region.
The federal agency’s announcement appeared on its website Jan. 20, saying: “Parks Canada respects the position of the Government of British Columbia … and recognizes that it cannot proceed without the support of the Government of British Columbia.”
The statement also said if the province changes its mind, work in the area would resume.
Parks Canada officials would not comment further on the matter and did not return telephone calls by press time.
According to some people, the announcement has generated more questions than answers about whether a national park will ever be established.
One person in particular who feels the federal government should be more forthcoming is MP Alex Atamanenko (B.C. Southern Interior).
“It’s not clear what’s happening and I think what I should do is publicly challenge the minister (Environment Minister Peter Kent) on this — this may be a question for question period when I’m back in Ottawa — if in fact we don’t get some idea of what’s going on this week,” he said. “It sounds as if they (Parks Canada) are a little bit confused, and I suspect there may be a conflict, some political pressure maybe? I don’t know.”
An important question he would like answered is whether or not First Nations bands in the region would fall under the stakeholder category.
“First Nations, according to my conversations, are not now being treated as stakeholders. They’re being treated as a full and equal partner (in the park plan)” said the NDP MP. “So does that mean they (Parks Canada) will not be meeting with stakeholders like business, ranchers and others, but are still meeting with First Nations because they are not one and the same?”
Atamanenko also wonders about the future of a First Nations study he said the Osoyoos and Lower Similkameen bands had an agreement with the government to complete by September.
He earlier called the decision by the province to opt out as “premature,” suggesting it would be better for B.C. to wait until all the information was in before deciding whether or not to go along with the plan.
Word of the federal decision has also left the two public sides of the issue unclear on what the future holds.
“I’m hoping the statement indicates that Parks Canada got the message when they say they’re honouring the position of the province, but we’re still waiting for a letter from Peter Kent,” said Greg Norton of the Grassland Park Review Coalition. “It’s not just the idea of a park that has strengthened the opposition over the years, it’s how Parks Canada conducts its business. They’ve treated us like idiots. How stupid do they think we are?”
He is also concerned about the reference to “public” engagement and if there will be ongoing efforts behind the scenes to change the minds of those opposed.
“If Parks Canada is trying to create the illusion that this is still alive, it is not helping the healing process and that’s a tragedy,” said Norton. “I want to see an end to this. This is a time for everybody to start getting back together again and start working cohesively.”
Meanwhile, Doreen Olson of the South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Network was disappointed with the announcement, but felt the federal government had little choice which route to take.
“I think they (Parks Canada) pretty much have to respect the provincial government, but we’re disappointed that it’s come to the point where there is no (public) communication,” she said. “I’m sitting here totally frustrated. This is turning into political football and the politicians don’t seem to want to make any decisions. People want leadership and we don’t seem to be getting any of that.”
Olson still believes there is majority support for a park, pointing to a survey, petition and a variety of organizations which have voiced a collective response in favour of the plan.