Indigenous entrepreneur defends right to harvest salt after warning from Parks Canada

Melissa Daniels says she won't stop using salt from Wood Buffalo National Park in her skin care line. "The implication that my land based, hand-harvested practice is a threat to the natural environment is insulting to me, our nation, our ancestors and the land itself."

Melissa Daniels calls warning letter 'insulting to me, our nation, our ancestors and the land itself'

Melissa Daniels is an Indigenous entrepreneur who harvests salt from Wood Buffalo National Park to create bath soak for her line of hand-crafted skin care products. She's defending her right to do so after a Parks Canada Warden sent her a letter asking her to stop, citing National Park regulations. (Submitted by Melissa Daniels)

An Indigenous entrepreneur in Fort Smith, N.W.T. wants recognition for her harvesting rights and an apology from Parks Canada after she received a letter from a warden asking her to stop collecting salt from Wood Buffalo National Park.

Melissa Daniels is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). She uses the salt from Wood Buffalo's salt plains in a bath product for her line of skincare products. 

"Canada is trying to extinguish my treaty rights to harvest from my traditional territory, something that had been agreed upon with the Crown since 1899 but has, in practice, been in place since time immemorial," she told CBC Trailbreaker host Loren McGinnis. 

The letter, which Daniels posted on Twitter, was written by a Parks Canada warden and congratulates her on her successful small business. It then asks her to stop removing salt from the park, citing a national regulation and Parks Canada's responsibility to protect the "ecological integrity" of the salt plains.   

A view of the salt plains at Wood Buffalo National Park. (Submitted by Melissa Daniels)

Daniels said the letter illustrates why her community has been pushing for an apology and reparations from Canada for the historic displacement and denial of their harvesting rights since the park's creation. 

A report on Wood Buffalo's history, released by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation last year, said "the Park's current co-management strategies are not adequate to meaningfully address the Park's violent, fraught history and its direct and cumulative intergenerational impacts on Denésuliné peoples." 

Memories of Gandhi

ACFN Chief Allan Adam, in a press release, compared Daniel's situation to the "Salt March" led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930, protesting a British colonial law that prohibited people in India from harvesting salt. 

"The law became a symbol for all that was unjust under the colonial system," Adams states. 

Daniels said the letter made no reference to the fact that she's a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, adding she has "constitutionally affirmed and inherent Indigenous and treaty rights to use this land that actually supersede any park regulations." 

In a statement, Parks Canada spokesperson Tim Gauthier wrote that they prefer to handle "such issues" through dialogue with Indigenous partners, and regrets that didn't happen in this case.

However, the statement  maintains that "commercial harvesting of salt in the national park, which is also a World Heritage Site, is not currently permitted."

The Borealis Bath Blend from Naidié Nezų contains three types of salt, handpicked flowers, calamine powder and colloidal oatmeal. (Naidié Nezų)

Daniels takes issue with the term "commercial," noting that business and harvesting practices are based in Dene law, and her products will never be mass-produced. 

She said the products, including her salt bath, are a way to reconnect people to the land, especially Dene who can't go out and harvest medicine for traditional use. The salt she harvests is only one part of one product produced for Naidié Nezų, Daniels said.

"The implication that my land based, hand-harvested practice is a threat to the natural environment is insulting to me, our nation, our ancestors and the land itself," she said.

Daniels' younger sister harvesting sweet grass the way their grandmother taught them. (Submitted by Melissa Daniels)

Daniels also doesn't accept Park's Canada's statement of regret. She wants an apology and recognition of her right to harvest, which she says she will continue to do. 

"If Parks Canada really wanted to, you know, reconcile or regretted how they approached this issue, which they're now saying only after I brought in a bunch of people, they would have contacted me, which they haven't," Daniels said.

Gauthier also wrote that Parks Canada will be reaching out to Wood Buffalo's co-operative management committee, which includes 11 Indigenous governments, to "begin a dialogue" and "exploration of this matter." 

Daniels is skeptical of that process, saying her previous work with park committees left her "disheartened." 

"I'm very much for a peaceful resolution, but … I'm not going to let them extinguish my rights and these relationships that I'm nurturing."

With files from Jenna Dulewich, Loren McGinnis and Sidney Cohen