By Vanessa Broadbent
Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change who oversees Parks Canada, visited the South Okanagan today to discuss the area’s proposed national park reserve. Following a meeting with local First Nations Chiefs and stakeholders today at the Nk’mip Desert & Heritage Centre in Osoyoos, McKenna sat down with the Oliver Chronicle to discuss the park’s development.
Oliver Chronicle: How did today’s meetings go?
Catherine McKenna: It was really great. I met with Chief Louie (Osoyoos Indian Band), but also Chief Crow (Lower Similkameen Indian Band) and Chief Eneas (Penticton Indian Band). We had some really good conversations. We have agreed we’re going to be working on a tri-party basis and with the First Nations and the government of British Columbia.
Then, I had a really good meeting with stakeholders to listen to people’s concerns and also the opportunity. It’s interesting, because it’s clear that there’s some misconceptions and then there’s some actual concerns that I think are really important that we respond to.
Some of them were “What about ranching and grazing?” That’s something I want to be personally clear about. The grazing will be allowed. Obviously, ranchers are a very important part of the national park reserve.
It’s really unfortunate to see the forest fires again. We’re seeing first-hand the impacts of climate change. I think people were thinking if a national park reserve means there won’t be the same resources for firefighting? In fact, we, Parks Canada, have the top firefighters in the world. They’re actually deployed right now in British Columbia so they do things like control the prescribed burns and take preventative measures. Some people had those concerns and I want to make sure that they feel at ease that this is something that is really important to us.
I think we need to really move forward. The plan is to get an agreement with the province and the First Nations where we have boundaries to put forward. I think that’s really important, that people really need to see what we’re talking about and also, just answer questions.
I met a mom and she said “What exactly does this mean for my family,” and I think people deserve answers. I think there really is an opportunity to do something amazing here. When you look at this beautiful part of the country, it’s unique, it’s something that we want to protect, the biodiversity here, but we also want to do it together.
I’m very committed to working with everyone. I’ve instructed my parks people that we need to start consultations. We also need to really start dispelling some of the myths but also responding to concerns in a very practical way.
OC: How are you working to connect with the public, especially the people that live here, on those misconceptions and concerns?
CM: The good news is we now have a parks person (Project Manager Sarah Boyle) who is dedicated to this, which I also think makes a really big difference. She’s been doing meetings but we need to start the consultations in communities. I met with people today to get a sense of what people were saying, but having consultations where you can hear it directly from community members, like open houses.
Also, I think it is useful to have different groups around the table. You have people that might have different perspectives on the park. We want to create a vision for this that’s going to be inclusive and great for the community but also our country.
OC: Will Sarah Boyle be the one putting together those open houses?
CM: That’s what I’ve really tasked her with but I asked people, the stakeholders that were there today, “What’s your view? How do you want to do these open houses?” Someone said priority should be we do them in the communities. That’s important, to make it accessible to people.
OC: Is there a timeline for when you’d like to have those done by?
CM: I think we’re going to start early in the fall.
OC: How will those meetings change plans? If negativity to the park is a strong voice, what will the response be?
CM: Well, I’m all about finding solutions. First of all, we need facts; facts are really important. People have concerns, like if you’ll have to pay to go through Highway 3, and that’s not a real concern. I think we need to address that. People need to see the actual proposed boundaries. And then we need to have conversations.
Obviously, there are some things that are challenging in a national park reserve. That’s just the nature of that, but I believe you try to get as close, bring as many people as you can together, and try to brainstorm how you alleviate concerns.
I have an example where we did this. When I was in the Toronto area, there’s a park that’s called Rouge National Urban Park and we wanted to advance it and expand it and there were challenges between farmers who had strong views and wanted to continue what they were doing, and then on the other hand you had environmentalists that had strong views. We sat down and everyone sat in a room and we had a number of meetings. We were able to hammer it out and actually work together.
OC: One common concern is that the area doesn’t have the infrastructure for the amount of people the park would attract. What are your findings on that?
CM: First of all, parks are a big economic driver. We’ve looked at the numbers for BC Parks; it’s about 60 million per year per park. We also make investments when it comes to parks and conservation and infrastructure. But you want to make sure that you can handle the capacity and we have a lot of experience doing that.
For Canada 150, our national parks were free. A lot of Canadians were really excited about that and we were able to come up with a local community to address those concerns so that you don’t have huge numbers of people at a particular period. It was interesting because the tourism sector, they’ve been talking about how they get tourists for a very small period of time, and with a national park you may have an opportunity to extend the period when people come, which will help even things out and support local businesses. But those are all things with proper planning you can address.
OC: How certain would you say is this park to happen?
CM: I’m committed to this park happening in 2019. That is a commitment I made with the First Nations partners, but also with the province. We’ve seen lurching, going back and forth. You have to seize the day. I think there’s a real opportunity. Absolutely, we want to consult with people, we want to have people engaged, we want to get to a good spot. But this is the moment.
Eventually you want to have something that’s great. You can spend a lot of time talking about things, but you also want to deliver something that will be great to the community. Some of the people that have concerns, they’ll find that actually the concerns can be addressed and that it’ll be great for them.