Who’s the biggest loser with the release of the Cold Lake Subregional Plan? Caribou, obviously, the species that the plan was supposed to protect. The second-biggest losers are Indigenous people, the group the plan seems designed to sideline.
You would think that a land use plan to protect Alberta’s endangered caribou would prioritize preserving and restoring caribou habitat. After all, they need somewhere to live. It being 2022, you might also think it was a good idea to meaningfully include the input of Indigenous people, who not only live on those same lands, but also have rights to use the land related to their culture and identity. You might think that, but the recently released Cold Lake Subregional Plan does neither of these things.
Some background: the territory of our nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, overlaps with much of the Cold Lake Subregional Plan. Historically, our people relied on woodland caribou, and its existence remains critical to our existence as Denesuline people. We have seen caribou populations decline in our territory as roads, seismic lines, pipelines and other disturbance fragments their habitat; as deer move into this altered landscape; as development impacts make it easier for wolves that prey on the caribou who remain.
At the same time, habitat fragmentation has eroded our members’ ability to live, eat, and drink off the land. Our youth know little about how to harvest and process caribou as our families continue to deal with growing food insecurity. The encroachment of industry has brought us jobs and some economic prosperity, but it has also brought drugs into our community and encounters with racism. We have never asked for development to stop; what we want is a seat at the table and a way to manage cumulative effects so that they don’t drive us, or caribou, to extinction.
Alberta has created a veneer of cumulative effects management. In 2012, they adopted the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) to “consider the cumulative effects of all activities.” In practice, the plan has allowed near-unfettered industrial development, with no consideration for either the fate of caribou nor the rights of Indigenous peoples. In fact, the Biodiversity Management Framework, a key component of LARP, remains in draft form after 10 years. have. Years. That’s like taking 10 years to make a plan to pay off your credit card.
Needless to say, in these last 10 years the caribou continued their precipitous decline. Then in 2020, partly due to pressure from Indigenous people, the federal government invoked the Species at Risk Act to force Alberta to take action to save caribou, resulting in a series of caribou range plans under the amorphous LARP, one of the first of which is the Cold Lake Subregional Plan.
Unfortunately, it is vague, plans restoration on very long timescales, and has no meaningful role for Indigenous people — it codifies the status quo. If, as expected, Alberta uses this plan to lift the moratorium on mineral sales in the region, the loss of caribou is all but guaranteed.
Alberta takes such a lackadaisical approach because enforcing disturbance limits and investing in habitat restoration is expensive and costs votes among those who depend upon old-fashioned resource industries. But there’s a less obvious answer: Alberta knows that if its plan is terrible, the federal government will be forced to intervene. For a provincial government, there’s no better distraction from a failure than a contrived opportunity to “stand up to Ottawa.”
The solutions aren’t easy but neither are they impossible. The Saulteaux and West Moberly First Nations signed a conservation agreement with the governments of Canada and British Columbia to save caribou. Maternal penning, predator control, and habitat restoration have enabled these First Nations to triple the size of the Klinse-Za caribou herd in over just eight years. These nations are not only saving caribou, they are saving their cultures and rights.
Albertans need to ask if fulfilling our premier’s penchant for political theater is worth the extirpation of woodland caribou. Me and my people must also ask whether it’s worth extinguishing our rights and culture, a question no one else is asking.
Vern Janvier is chief of the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation.