A virtual townhall organized by the United Conservative caucus on contentious changes to Alberta’s parks took a turn after moderators disabled the chat on Zoom, where questions were being posed by participants.
Parks Minister Jason Nixon was answering questions about the province’s plans to remove 164 parks from the system and close or partially close another 20.
Opposition to the move has been fierce, with more than 20,000 Albertans writing letters and 15,000 putting up lawn signs in support of the Defend Alberta Parks campaign, organized in part by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
CPAWS accessed internal documents through a freedom of information request regarding the move to de-list or close parks.
“Consultation was recommended from parks staff on these changes, but those recommendations were ignored. So there has been no consultation,” explained Tara Russell, program director for CPAWS Northern Alberta.
She said thousands of Albertans fear that removing protections around parkland could open it up to industrial development.
At the end of October, the UCP also introduced user fees for certain parks, including popular cross country skiing destinations in Kananaskis County.
“Parks should not be for-profit enterprises. It’s public land. It’s owned by us, the public,” Russell explained.
Russell took part in the Zoom call looking for some clarification from the UCP on what’s happening with parks, and to find out if anything has changed since the initial announcement in February.
Most of the questions were asked by other UCP MLAs taking part in the virtual meeting.
Participants started asking questions via the Zoom chat, but that chat was shut down by moderators shortly after the meeting began.
“The chat in the Zoom was cut off after 10 minutes and on the Facebook Live, the questions weren’t really being answered. It just felt like an infomercial,” explained park user Tyson Mastel.
He’s an avid camper and hiker, and hoped he’d get answers from the meeting.
“I asked, ‘Have you backtracked on your initial plan?’ and the moderator attempted to answer it by just saying, ‘Parks are not going anywhere’ – which doesn’t really answer or provide clarity on what’s happening,” Mastel explained.
His other questions, about specific parks, were never answered, he said. The outdoor enthusiast also noted a theme with the questions being asked by UCP MLAs.
“It seemed like a lot of the questions were just softballs,” he said.
“At the end I just kind of felt frustrated. It just didn’t provide any clarity, there seemed to be a lack of transparency and there wasn’t any actual consultation.”
On Wednesday, the UCP caucus told Global News there were other ways for people to ask questions besides the Zoom chat, adding there were hundreds of questions asked.
But policy studies professor Lori Williams with Mount Royal University said closing the chat didn’t send the right message to participants.
“Because they pretend, essentially, to consult with Albertans, and then shut it down when it doesn’t suit their purposes, it looks as if they’ve got something, perhaps, to hide,” she explained.
“It doesn’t look transparent, it doesn’t look accountable and it doesn’t look democratic. It accomplishes the exact opposite of what the government was trying to do.”
Williams said having the MLAs ask questions, rather than allowing residents to ask them directly, also poses a problem.
“It’s almost as though they’re censoring what questions are being asked by filtering them through an MLA who can decide in advance which questions should be asked.”
She noted that also means Minister Nixon could have prepare his responses in advance, rather than on the spot.
Williams said even though the UCP currently holds a majority government, it needs to engage in meaningful consultation with Albertans, on the parks issue and others.
“You certainly can just go ahead and do what you think you want to do and not care what people say, I suppose, but then you’ve got to face the consequences of that in the next election,” she explained.
“We’re seeing in recent polls that this sort of this is having a very damaging impact on the support for the UCP government.”
In response to the UCP caucus’ townhall, Defend Alberta’s Parks is hosting its own virtual meeting next week to help residents understand how they might be impacted by the changes.