UNESCO says national park threatened by Site C, tar sands as rivers no longer navigable

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a report that raises concerns about the impacts of tar sands development and the Site C hydroelectric dam on the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta.

The park is at the convergence of the Peace and Athabasca rivers and is considered the largest freshwater boreal delta on the planet.

The Canadian Press reports, "An United Nations agency has issued a warning about the environmental health of Canada's largest national park. In a report released Friday [March 10], UNESCO says northern Alberta's Wood Buffalo National Park is threatened by energy development, hydro dams and poor management. It warns that unless the area is better cared for, the park will be added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger."

The article adds, "UNESCO inspectors visited the park in September and October [2016]. They came at the urging of First Nations, who have long expressed concern about the cumulative effects on the Peace-Athabasca Delta of hydro projects in British Columbia, tar sands development in Alberta and climate change, which is already changing the landscape. UNESCO says evidence suggests the tar sands are depositing contaminants in the air, water and land. It says toxins such as mercury are showing up in the food web via bird eggs and fish."

Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation says, "The key issue is the declining water level. There's mud flats everywhere and we just can't get out on the land. When you can't navigate on our river systems through our delta, it's preventing us from exercising our rights and passing on our culture."

Notably, the Mikisew Cree First Nation won its legal challenge against C-38 and C-45, the Harper government's omnibus legislation that removed federal protection for most of the waterways in their traditional territory. Federal Court Justice Roger Hughes ruled that the federal government should have consulted with First Nations before introducing the omnibus bills.

In 2015, given their concerns about the national park, UNESCO asked Canada not to make any development decisions that would be difficult to reverse.

Despite this, and ongoing First Nation legal challenges against the Site C dam, the Trudeau government still issued Navigation Protection Act and Fisheries Act permits in July 2016 that enabled the construction of the Site C dam in Treaty 8 territory to continue without free, prior and informed consent.

The Council of Canadians has argued that a restored Navigable Waters Protection Act must incorporate the obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent (as recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), ensure that Indigenous treaty and water rights are respected, and that a nation-to-nation relationship is truly established.

Under the former Navigable Waters Protection Act, a waterway was considered "navigable" if a vessel such as a canoe was able to float across it. The legislation, first passed in 1882, eventually covered the impact of bridges, booms, dams, causeways, wharves, docks, piers and other structures. In 1906, the Supreme Court of Canada adopted the "floating canoe" threshold holding that any water that was navigable and floatable was within its scope. By 2002, the Navigable Waters Protection Act was described as a "federal statute designed to protect the public’s right to navigation and marine safety in the navigable waters of Canada."

When the Harper government gutted the Act - removing pipelines and hydro-transmission lines from its scope - it delisted 2.25 million rivers and 31,000 lakes that had previously been covered by the Act.

The Council of Canadians calls on the Trudeau government to immediately restore the Navigable Waters Protection Act and to stop making the situation worse by approving pipelines, further tar sands development, and the Site C dam.