Banff National Park management plan prioritizes Indigenous relations

Banff National Park’s Indigenous partners want to see the park agency lead by example, demonstrating how First Nations and Parks Canada officials across the country can work together to advance priorities of mutual interest in areas like conservation and reconciliation.

Banff National Park’s 2022 management plan, released in August, includes a new high-level strategy to strengthen Indigenous relations by ensuring First Nations representatives have a say in the direction of the park and its practices.

The plan will guide the park’s decision-making over the next 10 years and was partially informed by a Banff Indigenous Advisory Circle, which was formed in 2018. The group is comprised of members of the Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation, including Chiniki, Bearspaw and Goodstoney First Nations; Tsuut’ina First Nation; the Blackfoot Confederacy, including Siksika, Kainai and Piikani Nations; as well as the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3.

“We heard very clearly from our Indigenous partners that Banff National Park, in particular, being this iconic place that resonates across the country, has a responsibility to lead the way on this front,” said Banff National Park superintendent Salman Rasheed.

“We heard loud and clear that we want to move forward on tough issues like climate change, visitation and building on those partnerships with Indigenous communities to address some of these things together.”

To better understand the priorities of not only Indigenous people, but also stakeholders and Canadians at-large, Parks Canada carried out a series of public engagement tactics in early 2019 to help provide vision for all mountain national parks plans, including Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Waterton Lakes and Mount Revelstoke-Glacier.

About 3,700 responses helped shape Banff’s management plan, through online surveys, public meetings and workshops, as well as meetings with key organizations such as Indigenous and stakeholder groups.

In early discussions with Indigenous groups, key themes emerged surrounding the recognition of First Nations’ attachment to and stewardship of the land as a basis for all future management plans.

Located within the territories of Treaty 6, 7 and 8 – encompassing all 43 First Nations in Alberta – Banff is also in the territory of the Métis people, and is in the traditional lands and waters of numerous other Indigenous peoples.

The connection of Indigenous communities with their ancestral homelands was severed when the park was established, which has resulted in colonial thinking and values shaping the management and conservation of the park.

A new approach to park management is being developed through the management plan, one that values and applies Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems equally, said Rasheed.

“The plan really tries to restore Indigenous people to their traditional territory and their traditional practices,” said Rasheed. “That’s now enshrined in the plan and it gives us the opportunity to allow First Nations to exercise their cultural practices in the National Park.”

Through its plan engagement, Parks Canada found Indigenous peoples want to be involved in decisions regarding park operations and management.

This can be accomplished through a variety of methods, including collaboration on fieldwork, planning, executing projects, monitoring and evaluating, as well as following cultural protocols and incorporating ceremonies.

Some recent conversations with the Banff Indigenous advisory circle have revolved around weaving cultural burning practices into the park’s fire management exercises, said Rasheed.

“That’s just one example of how we can work together in a meaningful way toward a common goal,” he said. “We continue to work hard to make sure that we are meeting our mandate objectives in Parks Canada as well as meeting the objectives of Indigenous communities through their engagement with this plan.”

Tasha Hubbard, associate professor with the University of Alberta’s faculty of native studies, said reintroducing bison to Banff National Park is a good example of some of the ongoing Indigenous relationality work being done by Parks.

Hubbard, of Peepeekisis First Nation in Treaty 4 territory, is currently working on a documentary called Singing Back the Buffalo, a feature length film that follows Indigenous visionaries, scientists and communities who are rematriating the animal to the heart of the North American plains they once defined. She was present at the reintroduction ceremony in 2017 and is also part of a group of Indigenous women who visit the bison to renew their relationship with the animal in the landscape.

“I’ve been establishing a connection with some in the Banff field unit through some of this work and it’s been an ongoing process,” said Hubbard. “That’s really what it comes down to when we talk about the importance of relationships – strengthening that doesn't happen from one meeting or one event.

“A relationship forms and needs to be continually renewed. It's encouraging to see some of that work happening, but it is something that I hope to see more of within the park system.”

Often, Rasheed said meetings and conversations between Parks and its Indigenous partners reveal all parties to be working toward the same goal of protecting the land.

“One of the things that is really reassuring in general, is that so much of the time we find we have really shared interests and desired outcomes for these protected areas and we can work together to achieve those,” he said.

Another key goal for Parks Canada is to advance the federal government’s commitment toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, through meaningful, on-the-ground action and activities.

“As the protocols and interests of Indigenous knowledge holders allows, an updated inventory of cultural sites and objects in the park that are important to Indigenous peoples, and a cultural resource management plan describing improved protocols and practices for the management of these sites and objects [will be] completed in a way that respects the significance, origins and ownership of the material,” reads one objective of the management plan.

As part of one of its strategies to provide true-to-place experiences, Banff National Park also aims to provide visitors with an opportunity to hear about Indigenous culture from an Indigenous person who can present it accurately, openly and with integrity and truth.

With an eye toward the future, the Banff advisory circle will continue to guide Banff National Park to ensure the accurate history and integrity of Indigenous presence in Banff is portrayed and maintained.

Many of the Indigenous peoples surveyed prior to the management plan’s creation expressed a strong desire for continued involvement in management planning. The groups highlighted that Parks Canada needs to better understand and respect proper protocols when seeking to engage Indigenous groups.

This includes incorporating or expanding on cultural awareness training for staff and being open to adapting Indigenous approaches to working together.

Parks Canada, Rasheed said, takes a two-pronged approach to cultural awareness and training.

“We are very intentional about staffing Indigenous members in roles within Parks Canada so that there’s meaningful involvement with working within our mandate and our staff – I view that as cultural awareness training, too,” he said.

“And then for the past number of years, we’ve had dedicated cultural awareness trainings hosted by various Indigenous groups in the area. We will continue to provide that training to all new staff.”

Rasheed said broad consultation with Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups has occurred while creating previous plans, but this year’s approach was much more robust, particularly with the sage advice of the advisory circle to help guide it.

“We engaged early and often with our Indigenous partners and I think we really do have a vision of collaboration and shared objectives that makes the plan really exciting to think about looking into the future,” he said.

In order to drive the plan successfully and meaningfully, Hubbard said different levels of the Banff field unit and Parks Canada leadership would need to be willing to step out of their comfort zone and stay outside of it.

“I think sometimes what can happen is there’s one event or some work that’s done and everyone feels good and like they’ve done the work required to build that bridge,” she said. “But it’s really important that there’s continuing momentum and that that space for Indigenous voices and knowledge is also continually renewed.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook