UN committee directs Canada to protect Wood Buffalo National Park — or else

The Wood Buffalo National Park could be at risk of being demoted on the international stage if Canada doesn’t do more to protect the water and land from hydroelectric development, mining and oil sands projects in the region.

'The water loss is a huge concern for us,' says Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation

Changing water levels are impacting those who live around the Peace-Athabasca delta. (David Thurton / CBC)

The Wood Buffalo National Park could be demoted on the world stage if Canada doesn't do more to protect the water and land from development.

The United Nations World Heritage Committee voted Wednesday to call on Canada to implement an action plan involving 17 directives created by a monitoring mission to the park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — last year. 

They include improving monitoring of the Peace-Athabasca-Delta, assessing the environmental impacts of the Site C dam on the river system and creating a buffer zone between the park and the oil sands.

If the park doesn't follow through with the recommendations and report back to the committee by the end of 2018, it could be put on a list of sites classified as UN World Heritage in Danger.

If designated as such, it would be the first heritage site in Canada to be added to the list and the second in North America, after the Everglades National Park in the United States.

Water quality concerns

"There used to be lots of water — the water loss is a huge concern for us," said Melody Lepine with the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan. 
MIkisew Cree First Nation member Melody Lepine speaks to the UN's World Heritage Committee Wednesday in Krakow, Poland. (Melody Lepine)

"I think it would be a huge embarrassment to Canada — showing the committee and the world they can't manage a site, they can't take care of a site," Lepine said. 

Lepine grew up in the Indigenous community, which sent a petition to the UN committee in 2014 asking for help conserving the park.

"The delta always provided and took care of us, and now we hate to see that we're losing it," Lepine told CBC News from Krakow, Poland, where the 21-member international committee met and voted.

"You know, we see changes in water quality, contamination," she said.

"They've seen over the last 30-odd years that one of the main parts of the park has been drying out because of — in their view and the view of federal scientists … dams on the Peace River," said Mark Gustafson, a lawyer representing the Mikisew Cree First Nation's interests in Wood Buffalo.

"They've also seen, with the expansion of oil sands to the south of the park, [a] growing number of contaminants and unhealthy wildlife and diminishing wildlife in that same area."

The UN committee is asking Canada to assess the potential impacts of the Site C hydropower project on the delta. (B.C. Hydro)

Heritage site in danger

Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest national park in Canada at 44,800 square kilometres, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1983.

At the time, it wasn't as common to put buffer zones around heritage sites as it is now, Gustafson explained. 

Creating a buffer zone around the park would restrict oil sands from expanding close to the park's boundaries.

Alberta's Environment ministry said it's reviewing UNESCO's 17 recommendations and will come up with a "co-ordinated response" with B.C., the N.W.T. and the federal government.

Parks Canada is being asked to submit an interim report to the World Heritage Centre within seven months on how it will put the recommendations in place.