Salt Spit Highlights Troubling History of Canadian National Park | Canada

FFor years, Melissa Daniels has been traveling to the vast wilderness of northern Alberta to collect natural salts on land her ancestors once hunted and fished. She mixes the salt with wild flowers from the forest and sells it in small batches.

But Canada’s national parks agency recently ordered him to stop, in a move that angered his community and highlighted the park’s troubling history.

For thousands of years, the Denésuliné people hunted and trapped the vast boreal forest that straddles Alberta and the Northwest Territories. But in 1922 they were forcibly evicted when Canada began creating what would eventually become the sprawling 4.5-million-hectare Wood Buffalo National Park.

Daniels, who runs the wellness company Naidie Nezu (“Good Medicine” in the Dene language), keeps returning to these lands and eats about four liters of salt a year.

But in a recent letter, Parks Canada told him that he would not be allowed to proceed. “Since the salt flats…are within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park, this is problematic,” the letter said. “We ask that the park salt remain in the park and not be sold as an ingredient in bath mix or other products.”

Location of Wood Buffalo National Park

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief Allan Adam said Parks Canada had never atoned for the actions against his people or fully compensated them for the loss of their homeland. Allan called the letter to Daniels “another reminder that Canada is still in the early days of reconciliation.”

Parks Canada said traditional collection of salt for personal use was permitted and common practice in the park, but commercial collection was not allowed. The agency said it regretted not using dialogue with indigenous partners on this issue.

Wood Buffalo is one of the largest parks in the world and is a critical habitat for the world’s largest free-ranging population of buffalo. Its basin is the only intact breeding ground for endangered whooping cranes.

It became a world heritage site in 1983, but UNESCO has recently raised concerns that the Canadian government is failing in its stewardship of the park.

In addition to the environmental degradation within the park and the growing threat from resource extraction projects along its borders, a recently released report documents how the Denésuliné people suffered when they were ordered out of the area. The elders tell stories of burned cabins and loss of access to their hunting grounds.

The salt flats of Wood Buffalo National Park. Photography: All Canada/Alamy Photos

One resident, Charlie Mercredi, told the report’s authors that the park’s creation was wrong because “people should come before bison.” Mercredi said: “The park does not want to admit that they did us wrong because, in terms of compensation, they would have to pay a lot.”

Another, Leslie Wiltzen, spoke about growing up knowing that land that had been inhabited and hunted by her ancestors for thousands of years was off limits. “How do you describe that in words?”

While national parks across the continent have been heralded as a conservation victory in preserving vast swaths of wilderness and ecologically sensitive areas, some come with a dark history.

“People who are forced off their land in the name of conservation are also part of colonialism, and while tackling the climate crisis will require a shift from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’ energy, it also requires a radical reconfiguration of the dynamics of environmental power”, Naidie. Nezu, Daniels’ company, said in a post on Instagram. “Colonialism is colonialism is colonialism.”

Daniels wrote that he was not intimidated by the warning and would not stop producing his “illegal” salt. “Every time you choose to support Naidie Nezu and immerse yourself in our banned bath salts, you are immersing yourself in a century of reparations,” she said.

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