Edmonton

Bighorn Country info sessions cancelled amid allegations of bullying, intimidation

Upcoming consultation sessions for the parks proposal for Alberta's Bighorn Country have been cancelled amid allegations of bullying and harassment directed at supporters of the project.

Some supporters of parks proposal harassed, berated, environment minister says

The province has cancelled upcoming public engagement sessions about the Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park proposal amid concerns about bullying. (LoveyourHeadwaters)

Upcoming public information sessions for the parks proposal for Bighorn Country have been called off amid allegations of bullying and harassment directed at supporters of the project.

Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips issued a statement Saturday announcing the cancellation of upcoming public information sessions in Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Red Deer and Sundre.

"I have become increasingly concerned about the inflamed rhetoric and inaccurate statements made by some organizations and individuals on social media. This has led to significant misinformation on the status and substance of the proposal for Bighorn Country and, more recently, allegations of bullying, abuse, and concerns over personal safety," the statement reads.

"I have heard stories of Albertans afraid to attend community events, Albertans berated in public, Albertans followed home, and Albertans feeling intimidated to not speak their mind or participate in this important discussion."

In an open letter that Phillips posted on Facebook, she specifically expressed her disappointment at United Conservative Party MLA Jason Nixon's "inaccurate statements" and "misinformation."

Nixon issued a response to the cancellations, saying he has attended public events about the proposal, but hasn't seen any intimidation.

"The NDP is trying to ram through a fake consultation on an issue of major consequence in just 70 days before an election," Nixon's statement reads. "It is completely unacceptable for the NDP to arbitrarily cancel in-person consultation."

In November, Alberta's NDP proposed four provincial parks, including the Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park, plus four provincial recreation areas and a new public-land-use zone in the area on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, west of Nordegg.

But there has been significant pushback since the proposal was brought forward, with some locals worrying the new designations would affect how they use the land.

Off-highway vehicle users are worried they wouldn't be able to use trails that have been developed and maintained by local groups, though the province has said the proposal would maintain all designated trails.

Nixon, the UCP MLA for the area, has also spoken out about the proposal, highlighting uncertainty about the plan's impact on industry and land use, and saying the province sidelined an ongoing consultation process.

The Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park is being created to preserve large portions of the region that borders Jasper and Banff National Parks.

Over five years, the province would spend $40 million on developing infrastructure for camping, hiking, paddling, snowmobile and off-highway vehicle use.

In her statement, Phillips said the government will re-evaluate its engagement plans to ensure Albertans in Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton can participate safely.

Two telephone town hall sessions will be scheduled so people in Drayton Valley and Red Deer can ask government officials questions about the proposal. Public engagement was initially set to run until the end of January, but has been pushed to Feb. 15.

Phillips noted the proposal "is not set in stone," and highlighted the need to address conflicts between user groups, a lack of infrastructure and enforcement, and environmental concerns.

"We continue to listen to Albertans and hear your feedback," she said. "But this must be done in a respectful way — a way that ensures everyone feels safe and welcome to participate."

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine and The Canadian Press

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