Tensions Flare Over Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park

First Nations in Canada have long gotten the short end of the stick in deals with federal agencies. Recently, inside Jasper National Park, things are tending toward more of the same, with indigenous people raising objections over a newly installed glass skywalk 918 feet above the Sunwapta valley.

Like Canada’s other early national parks, Jasper was formed through colonial territorialization, in which indigenous people were forced from their lands to make way for wilderness preservation. As a result, the government must still consult with indigenous communities that hold Aboriginal or treaty rights in the area, a process fraught with controversy, according to an article by Megan Youdelis, a researcher at York University. In Jasper National Park, interests of First Nations overlaps with that of Parks Canada, causing friction over the development of the Glacier Skywalk.

A couple taking a selfie on the Glacier Skywalk (Source: Cezary Kucharski/Flickr).

Jasper, located in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta province, is a few hours drive west of Edmonton, and is the second most visited park in Canada  with over two million visitors a year. Replete with glaciers and snow-capped mountain peaks, it is home to the Columbia Icefield, the largest ice field in the Canadian Rockies, as well as the Athabasca Glacier, the most-visited glacier in North America. First Nations are the descendants of people who immigrated to the area as far back as 9,000 years ago, after the big glaciers receded from the present-day park.

Parks Canada, founded in 1911, is in charge of all national parks in Canada, and approved the $21 million Glacier Skywalk, but many First Nations felt that they weren’t properly consulted, according to Youdelis. Youdelis found that park management traditionally marginalizes First Nations’ input in the decision-making process in parks across Canada, including in Jasper.

“It’s not right that certain First Nations enjoy fairly advanced comanagement arrangements with the state (such as in Gwaii Haanas, for example), while the First Nations living in Treaty areas are only ‘consulted’ in a very cursory manner,” said Youdelis in an interview with GlacierHub. “I think this is a major problem for the older, southern parks in Canada, like Jasper, where Indigenous territories continue to be appropriated so that corporations and the state benefit economically.”

The 2011 Consultation and Aboriginal Engagement Report gives an account of the stakeholder meetings and open houses in which First Nations were consulted about the skywalk, but the report does not give any indication of which tribes were consulted, what issues were raised and what was done to address these issues. Parks Canada did not respond to requests to comment.

According to a public forum put forth by Parks Canada, “Subsequent site visits with Elders from communities that expressed an interest in the project either confirmed that there were no concerns with the project or that no follow-up was required.” Some First Nations members refute this claim and have expressed that Parks Canada didn’t consult them properly by using only a forum meeting instead of a formal consultation with First Nations. Forum meetings are considered inadequate by some members of First Nations because not all Indigenous people can attend because of either the time or location. Furthermore, if Indigenous people don’t speak up during the meeting, their opinions simply aren’t heard.

Jasper National Park (Source: Bernard Spragg. NZ/ flickr)
Jasper National Park (Source: Bernard Spragg. NZ/ flickr)

One member from the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation told Megan Youdelis, “We just felt it was very inappropriate that the Forum be used for consultation.” Another member of the Stoney Nakoda Nation said, “They did a brief presentation on what they wanted to do with the Glacier Skywalk and they asked for some feedback. The first thing I remember one of the members saying was, ‘This meeting is not a consultation. It’s not regarded as a consultation.’ What Jasper likes to do is have one or two meetings and say it’s a consultation.”

Others interviewed by Youdelis felt that the decision to go ahead with the skywalk was already made by the time they were consulted, even if they had rights to lands that overlapped with Park boundaries. A member of Confederation of Treaty Six Nations said, “We went in there frustrated, and we left even more frustrated. It’s really sad when you know that all that’s happening is they’re going to ask us for the sake of asking. Just so they can give the appearance of ‘Yeah, we asked them.’”

However, not all feedback from Indigenous people was negative: respondents of the Alexis Sioux Nakota Nation and Sucker Creek First Nation had a better experience with regards to the Skywalk and received one on one meetings, even negotiating terms with Parks Canada. A member of the Alexis Sioux Nakota Nation told Youdelis, “I guess if we didn’t seek them out that’s probably what would have happened with us as well, them coming to the Forum and doing a presentation. That’s the point where you start going after things… If you’re proactive with consultation, you can pounce on that [opportunity] and get your own wheels rolling.”

Road to Jasper National Park (Source: Pascal / flickr).

Other concerns with the new Glacier Skywalk stem from the fact that no Indigenous people work there, according to Youdelis.  While Indigenous people may be told about employment and economic opportunities from new projects, they are rarely followed up on. Near Maligne Lake in Jasper, there have been discussions about First Nations selling their crafts, but many see this only as a way for Parks Canada to curry favor with First Nations tribes. This may lead to a system where First Nations are incentivized to accept deals put forth, while not having any say on the park’s authority to build projects on their land.

“The community has always questioned why there are not more opportunities for Aboriginal groups among the private sector in the park,” said a member of the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation to Youdelis. “I know there has been discussions along these lines of tourism opportunities, visitor centers and partnerships, but nothing has ever really come to fruition.”

Though Parks Canada has taken steps to redress injustices in Jasper, like hosting annual Aboriginal Days where First Nations perform songs and dances, sell crafts, and showcase their culture, severe inequities remain. Much work still needs to be done across Canada to bridge the gap between Indigenous communities and park management, so that all Indigenous people feel that they have been properly consulted in park decisions.

As Youdelis emphasized to GlacierHub, “The unquestioned authority of Parks Canada to make any and all land use decisions in these territories is entirely colonial, and I think this issue with ‘consultation’ across Canada needs to be addressed.”

Moving forward, one thing is certain, First Nations will not forget about the Glacier Skywalk.

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