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A salt plain in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta/Northwest Territories, Canada.

DEA / G. CARFAGNA/Getty Images

A member of a Northern Alberta First Nation and its chief say a warning from Parks Canada to stop harvesting salt from Wood Buffalo National Park is out of step with reconciliation efforts because their ancestors were forcibly expelled from their traditional lands in order to create the park.

Melissa Daniels, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said she received a letter ordering her to stop harvesting salt for her small business, botanical-based Naidié Nezų, which means “good medicine” in Dene. She said she scoops a few cups of salt from the park at a time – a total of about four litres a season – for use in her bath salts.

“Being that the salt flats local to the Fort Smith area are within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park, this is problematic,” states the letter from a Parks Canada warden, adding that the removal of salt or any other natural objects from the park is prohibited.

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“We ask that salt from the park stay in the park and not be sold as an ingredient in the bath blend or other products.”

Ms. Daniels said the letter is a slap in the face.

Report details harms to Alberta First Nation for creation of Wood Buffalo National Park

The painful history of Wood Buffalo National Park is a key part of her complaint. Her First Nation is seeking an apology and reparations from Parks Canada for the forcible expulsion of community members to clear the way for the creation of the park, the country’s largest, located in northeastern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories.

The expulsion was documented in a report released last year that also said it was part of a larger set of drastic changes that the Dene in Northern Alberta faced in the early 20th century.

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The federal government has previously said it recognizes the many hardships experienced by Indigenous peoples because of the establishment and operation of Wood Buffalo National Park.

On its website, Parks Canada says the park was established in 1922 “to protect the last remaining herds of bison in northern Canada” and today it “protects an outstanding and representative example of Canada’s Northern Boreal Plains.” In 1983, UNESCO named Wood Buffalo a World Heritage Site. It will mark its centenary in December.

The website also notes, under the heading “Indigenous relations at Parks Canada,” that the agency’s programs and practices support the federal government’s priority of closing the socioeconomic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians by “generating opportunities to advance the socio-economic well-being of Indigenous partners.”

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said in a statement that Parks Canada’s “threatening letter” to Ms. Daniels is “yet another reminder that Canada is still in the very early days of reconciliation.”

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“The Dene have resided in what is now called Wood Buffalo National Park for at least 11,000 years,” he said.

He also noted that a signed treaty guarantees access to the territory and use of its resources.

“Our people were forcibly removed from the area and their homes burnt to the ground by Parks Canada and the RCMP in the early 20th century,” said Mr. Adam, who told The Globe and Mail last July of his grandmother’s expulsion from the area. “For the last two years ACFN has been engaged with the federal government to resolve this historic injustice.”

In a statement, Parks Canada said it is committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Spokesperson Tim Gauthier said traditional harvesting of salt by Indigenous peoples for personal use is allowed and commonly practised in Wood Buffalo. But he said commercial harvesting is not permitted.

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“That said, Parks Canada’s preference is always to address such issues through dialogue with Indigenous partners, and we regret that was not our approach in this instance,” Mr. Gauthier said.

Parks Canada is confident that through “respectful engagement and discussion” a resolution can be found that meets the needs of local Indigenous people while preserving the integrity of Wood Buffalo National Park for future generations, he added.

Ms. Daniels said the statement from Parks Canada constitutes “performative reconciliation,” adding that the agency had not reached out to her personally.

Mr. Adam said he is willing to discuss the issue with Parks Canada, along with the need for an apology to the First Nation. He said that if there is a celebration of Wood Buffalo’s centenary without formal recognition of the harms done, the First Nation will be making its true history known.

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