Earlier this spring, the Alberta government revealed its plan to remove 175 of Alberta’s provincial parks from the park system. This decision, made without public consultation or park-by-park justification, shows the Alberta government’s intention to place private interests over those of people and the planet.
This move towards privatization is nothing new for the Kenney government, or for conservative governments across the prairies. The Pallister government in Manitoba is also looking to privatize provincial parks, and the Saskatchewan government has long been on a track to privatize previously unionized work and law enforcement.
Privatization is the oldest play in the book for conservative governments – however, it’s important to understand how this move by the Alberta government undermines democracy and threatens the commons; the ecological, social, and cultural resources and heritages that are shared by all.
The commons and the value of provincial parks
The concept of the commons is much more than just publicly held lands and services. As John Cartwright, Chair of the Board for the Council of Canadians, shares, the commons also signifies “a shared social purpose.” Protecting the commons means protecting social services, and other publicly held assets, which includes provincial parks.
The value of provincial parks goes beyond the good memories and joy that these spaces have brought to people across Canada for decades. Provincial parks provide opportunities for recreation, but also for conservation and wilderness education. Parks are home to fragile ecosystems and allow for better protection of wildlife species and habitats.
It is unacceptable that the Alberta government did not publish relevant data about the affected parks before making a decision of this magnitude. By not sharing information like the original rationale for the creation of the parks and their value, the original infrastructure investments into these spaces, ongoing management costs, usage statistics, and reasons for proposed de-listing, the government has shown that its priority is privatization, not the common good.
In addition to not sharing relevant information about the parks, the government also did not engage in consultation and democratic decision-making processes. A majority of Albertans did not support this move to privatize parks – in fact, seven out of 10 Albertans oppose the closure or removal of these parks from the parks system. Knowing the attachment of people in this province to parks and nature areas, the Alberta government deliberately chose not to engage the public in a decision that impacts 37 per cent of provincial parks.
Undertaking this decision without sharing rationale, or proper consultation is a breach of trust between the government and the public, as well as irresponsible democratic decision-making. Instead of listening to Albertans and continuing to safeguard the nature that is so much a part of our identity as Albertans and Canadians, the government has chosen to put the fate of our parks in the hands of those who would damage this ecological, social and cultural heritage.
Proposed private “partnership” means “profit”
The government has said there is a possibility of working towards “Park Partnerships,” that would transfer responsibility for maintenance and management of parks to municipalities or not-for-profit groups. However, because of underfunding, it is already a challenge for these groups to maintain existing land and resources. Any inability to maintain the land will likely result in private, for-profit companies taking over management of the land. Private companies have a long track record of poor management and maintenance – turning parkland over to private interests is not in the best interest of the public.
While the government has noted that “these proposed changes account for less than one per cent of the Alberta Parks land base and would not impact protected areas managed for conservation,” this is clearly not the case. CPAWS has noted that the land affected includes “the most accessible areas for Albertans across the province to access parks and experience our public protected areas,” in addition to land that is important for conservation.
Additionally, if there is no private partner found to maintain and manage these spaces, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has noted that the land “could still be removed from the parks system completely and revert to vacant public land.” If this should happen, land that is the shared cultural heritage of Alberta could become available for resource extraction projects.
The government of Alberta introduced the closure and privatization of these Alberta parks as a way to save money – these changes are estimated to save $5 million. However, $5 million is a pittance when considered in light of the $120 million that the Alberta government is spending on the Canadian Energy Centre (also known as the War Room), or the billions that were given to industry with the Alberta government slashing the corporate tax rate in 2019. The government of Alberta’s priorities are clear.
Turn up the heat!
The lack of transparency and democracy in this process is nothing new for the current Alberta government. However, the Kenney government has shown that with enough public pressure, we can get it to reverse course. We’ve seen this with highway trucking regulations, and scholarships for students.