ACFN calls for harvesting rights in Wood Buffalo National Park, apology for mistreatment in park creation

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The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (CAFN) is seeking the right to hunt, trap, fish and feed on traditional lands that are now part of Wood Buffalo National Park. The First Nation and a report say the creation of the park cut the Dené people off from harvesting and cultural sites in the park, destroyed homes, and led to hunger, poverty and disease.

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The First Nation is also demanding a formal apology, reparations for decades of traditional use of the lost land, and an agreement on the future relationship with Parks Canada.

“Now they want our help to turn the park into a tourist attraction and help develop game regulations, when we haven’t even been allowed to hunt in the park for almost a hundred years,” said the ACFN Chief Allan Adam in an interview.

“Why would we want to help bring people from all over the world to the park when we can’t even make someone say ‘sorry for driving your ancestors out of their lands and homes?’ “

An apology was first requested at a meeting in March 2020 with federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Ron Hallman, President and CEO of Parks Canada. A spokesperson for Wilkinson did not respond to requests for comment.

The new calls for an apology and compensation come after a 182-page report, released this week by researchers Peter Fortna and Sabina Trimble of Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, details how the Canadian government forced people to leave the area to create the park 99 years ago. . The report is based on reviews of historical documents and interviews with elders.

Map of the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park in the Denésuliné Territories, showing the 1922 and 1926 enlarged boundaries. Image provided / Willow Springs Strategic Solutions
Map of the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park in the Denésuliné Territories, showing the 1922 and 1926 enlarged boundaries. Image provided / Willow Springs Strategic Solutions

Evictions from park lands caused famine and poverty among the Dene

The park was created as a reserve for the endangered wood bison. Government officials at the time believed that native communities were reckless buffalo hunters and that a park was the best way to protect the herds. This attitude has been used to justify the eviction of indigenous peoples from park lands.

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The communities impacted by the creation of the park were never consulted. Some ministers, Indian agents and Catholic missionaries feared that a buffalo sanctuary would push the Cree, Dene and Métis into starvation. In the face of negative feedback, limited land use was granted to fishermen with treaty status. These exceptions ended in 1926 when the park expanded for a failed plan to support a Wainwright Plains Bison herd.

A strict authorization system has led to the eviction of mostly Dene residents and land users. The centuries-old harvesting and cultivation sites suddenly became off-limits. Police and park rangers conducted warrantless searches of homes for meat and furs to make sure people were not hunting in the park. Some houses were set on fire to force people out of the park.

Many government officials felt they protected the park’s ecosystems and indigenous peoples. An official wrote in September 1947 “We cannot… allow Indians to hunt and trap indiscriminately if we expect to provide him with animals that he can hunt and trap now and in the future”.

A dog camp for police and staff at Wood Buffalo National Park in 1952. Provincial Archives of Alberta
A dog camp for police and staff at Wood Buffalo National Park in 1952. Provincial Archives of Alberta

Until the 1950s, missionaries and Indian agents urged governments to relax the rules on fishing, hunting and trapping, as relief programs failed to prevent famine from sweeping the region. Fort Chipewyan. Meanwhile, sport hunters legally hunted hundreds of bison from the park between 1946 and 1967 as the local food supply dwindled.

“There are a lot of men here who take care of the bison, no one takes care of us … no one seems to care whether we are starving or not,” wrote ACFN Chief Jonas Laviolette. in a 1927 letter to Indian Affairs.

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The biggest blow to the Dene came in 1944 when members of the Chipewyans allowed to stay inside the park were transferred to the Mikisew Cree. Anyone refusing the transfer was kicked out and all members outside the park at the time were denied entry. There is no documentation as to why this was done and no evidence that the chiefs and locals were consulted. Fortna said it was probably done for bureaucratic reasons.

The expelled Dene faced a vicious cycle after losing access to the park: hunger, competition for furs, and few economic opportunities. Poverty and disease followed.

Today, Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest of its kind in Canada, covering almost 45,000 square kilometers, roughly the same size as Denmark. It is the largest dark sky reserve in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adam said he was frustrated that a plan to move forward had not yet been created and that there had been no excuses.

“The land was rich in fur and made a lot of people rich. But the Dene people? Nothing, said Adam. “They chose to protect animals rather than humans. “

– with files from Sarah Williscraft

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