The Park Has Become a Political Football

The urban national park is quickly becoming an issue that is dividing Edmontonians

Like a seven-foot centre protecting the paint, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi swatted away a petition from Common Sense Edmonton. The advocacy group had gathered 2,153 signatures in support of its call for the City to abandon a plan to partner with the feds on an urban national park.

The petition, which was brought to City Hall on Tuesday, was rejected from being introduced at a City Council meeting this week because of procedural issues. Petitions like that have to be brought in front of committees, not at regular council meetings.

While he “wasn’t surprised” that the petition was rejected, Common Sense Edmonton spokesperson Kerry Diotte believes that Edmontonians should eventually decide by referendum if we partner with the federal government on an urban national park, or not.

But why is there so much hand wringing about a project as seemingly benign as a national urban park within Edmonton’s borders?

And three councillors — Tim Cartmell, Jennifer Rice and Karen Principe — later voted against continuing this process. While the park still has the support of the majority of council, cracks are showing.

While the petition wasn’t presented to council, Rice said she could not ignore it. And, she said she could not discount her own survey in ward Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi, which had 620 respondents. The majority opposed a national urban park.

Still, with a 10-3 vote of support, the park moves to the planning process. That’s not a full approval; what it means is that council will do more fact-finding and administration will further engage the public and the feds about the feasibility of a park, from maintenance costs to boundaries. And, during the debate, councillors said that, like the gondola project which was supported through the planning process but later killed, they could also withdraw support for the national park at a later date.

Diotte, the former city councillor and Conservative MP who also lost a mayoral bid, says his group and its supporters don’t see a need for the federal government to get involved in the river valley. And Diotte is skeptical of the City’s assertions that the feds would not control the national-park project.

“I don’t think you can have a national park without the feds having ownership,” said Diotte. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Coun. Andrew Knack asserted that Common Sense Edmonton is spreading misinformation and “should have known better” when it came to making so much noise about a potential park. He repeatedly asked administration if the feds would have any control over the park, and was repeatedly told, “no.” He wanted to make sure all of council (and the members of the public who tuned in) heard it, numerous times.

Diotte said that Common Sense Edmonton’s view is simple: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “I think a lot of people are of this mind.” He said that the City is doing a good job managing the River Valley, so why add more bureaucracy to the mix? He said that, while in the federal government, he spoke to MPs who had national parks in their ridings, and that there were many issues to make changes to those sites, from adding a coffee shop or a gift shop, or building more public washrooms.

Cartmell echoed the “if it ain’t broke…” line of thinking in council.

“The City of Edmonton has been an excellent steward of the River Valley and ravines for over 40 years,” he said.

And he warned that the process with the feds “looks more like a negotiation and less a fact-finding mission.”

Coun. Erin Rutherford said that the City hasn’t been doing such a great job maintaining the river valley; she said there are issues with accessibility. Areas are eroding. And she said the national urban park will not follow the traditional Parks Canada model.

“It’s been clear from the start that it’s not going to be like Jasper or Banff where you pay admission,” she said.

“I’d like to see what funding is available to make part of our river valley more accessible for all citizens to enjoy.”

And Coun. Keren Tang said its simply too early for the City to walk away from the process.

“It would be almost irresponsible if we walked away and left resources on the table.”