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Alberta minister says nine government officials harassed over Bighorn parks plan


LETHBRIDGE, Alta. – Alberta’s environment minister, facing criticism for cancelling public meetings on a new parks plan, is offering new information on security threats she says led to her decision. Shannon Phillips says nine government officials have been harassed, some of them verbally and two of them seriously, but she wouldn’t give details Wednesday.

Her office also confirmed that RCMP received two complaints but are not pursuing active investigations.

Phillips said she is open to rescheduling the cancelled meetings, but only if officials can assure her that public safety is not at risk.

“This situation is fluid,” she said on a conference call. “We will continue to liaise with both law enforcement, with local communities, with the venues. “(Then) we will make a determination based on all of that evidence to restore some of these information sessions if we can be reasonably assured that the public safety will be guaranteed.”

In November, Phillips announced eight new parks covering 4,000 square kilometres in what is known as Bighorn Country along the eastern edges of Banff and Jasper national parks.

Residents and area officials have raised concerns about how the project might affect oil and gas exploration, the forestry industry and off-road vehicle use.

The province announced half a dozen public information sessions, starting with two in Rocky Mountain House in mid-December.

They were to be followed by meetings this week in Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Sundre and Edmonton.

Phillips cancelled those four sessions on Saturday. She said she had heard reports of Bighorn park supporters being publicly berated, followed to their homes and otherwise intimidated – so much so that she feared for public safety.

Instead, telephone town halls are planned along with an online survey.

The Opposition United Conservatives say Phillips acted rashly and is ramming through the consultations to get the park plan in place before a provincial election this spring.

Justice critic Mike Ellis said the lack of police involvement is telling.

“We have been clear: any intimidation, any threats, any harassment are all completely unacceptable. We would absolutely condemn any such documented incidents in the strongest terms _ yet there have been no documented incidents so far to back up the minister’s claims,” Ellis said from Calgary.

“The government also needs to make clear that they are withdrawing their arbitrary consultation deadline for the Bighorn,” he added. “The rushed timeline prior to an election is not helpful to anyone.”

Phillips has also traded barbs with United Conservative house leader Jason Nixon, who represents the area covered by the Bighorn. Phillips has accused Nixon of stirring up fear and misinformation over the parks plan.

Nixon has said he attended the public meetings that were held and did not see any evidence of abuse or intimidation. He said there are always people who attack on social media, but in a public letter earlier this week, he suggested that’s no reason to abandon the sessions.

“We cannot allow their cowardly and inexcusable behaviour to result in Albertans being shut out of discussions about the future of their home,” Nixon wrote.

The Bighorn region features mountains, foothills, forests, lakes, streams and the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, which more than a million Alberta residents depend on for drinking water.

The plan calls for a variety of permitted activities and offers $40 million over five years for campsites and other infrastructure.

Off-highway vehicles, horse packing and hunting would continue, although with new restrictions. Grazing leases would continue and no existing trails would be closed.

Copyright (c) 2018 The Canadian Press