Thursday, April 18

Salt spat highlights Canadian national park’s troublesome history | Canada

FFor years, Melissa Daniels has been traveling to the vast wilds of northern Alberta to harvest naturally occurring salts on lands her ancestors once hunted and fished. She blends the salt with wildflowers from the woods and sells it in small batches.

But Canada’s national park agency recently ordered her to stop, in a move that has angered her community and highlighted the park’s troubling history.

For thousands of years, the Denésuliné people hunted and trapped the sprawling boreal forest straddling Alberta and the Northwest Territories. But in 1922 they were forcefully evicted as Canada began creating what would eventually become the sprawling 4.5m hectare Wood Buffalo national park.

Daniels, who runs the wellness company Naidie Nezu (“Good Medicine”, in the Dene language) still returns to those lands and takes roughly four liters of the salt each year.

But in a recent letter, Parks Canada told her she would not be allowed to continue. “Being that the salt flats… are within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo national park, this is problematic,” the letter read. “We ask that salt from the park stay in the park and not be sold as an ingredient in the bath blend or other products.”

Location of Wood Buffalo national park

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief, Allan Adam, said Parks Canada had never atoned for the actions against his people or fully compensated them for the loss of their homeland. Allan said the letter to Daniels was “another reminder that Canada is still in the very early days of reconciliation.”

Parks Canada said traditional harvesting of salt for personal use was allowed and was a common practice in the park, but commercial harvesting was not permitted. The agency said it regretted not using dialogue with Indigenous partners on this issue.

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Wood Buffalo is one of the world’s biggest parks and is a critical habitat for the largest free-roaming buffalo population on earth. Its watershed is the only untouched breeding ground for endangered whooping cranes.

It became a world heritage site in 1983 but Unesco has recently expressed concerns that the Canadian government is failing in its stewardship of the park.

In addition to environmental degradation within the park and the growing threat of resource extraction projects along its borders, a recently published report documents how the Denésuliné people suffered when they were ordered out of the area. Elders tell stories of burned-down cabins and a loss of access to their hunting grounds.

The salt plains of Wood Buffalo national park. Photograph: All Canada Photos/Alamy

One resident, Charlie Mercredi, told the report’s authors that the creation of the park wasn’t right because “people should come first before the bison”. Mercredi said: “The park doesn’t want to acknowledge that they did wrong to us because compensation-wise they would have to pay lots.”

Another, Leslie Wiltzen, spoke about growing up knowing that the land that had been inhabited and hunted by her ancestors for thousands of years was off-limits. “How do you describe that in words?”

While national parks across the continent have been heralded as a conservation victory in preserving vast swaths of wilderness and ecologically sensitive areas, some come with a dark history.

“People being forced off their land in the name of conservation is also part of colonialism and while facing the climate crisis will require a switch from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’ power, it also demands a radical reconfiguration of environmental power dynamics,” Naidie Nezu, Daniels’ company, said in a post on Instagram. “Colonialism is colonialism is colonialism.”

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Daniels wrote that she was undeterred by the warning and would not stop producing her “illegal” salt. “Each time you choose to support Naidie Nezu and soak in our forbidden bath salts, you’re soaking in a century worth of reparations,” she said.

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