A scene from Alberta’s beautiful Bighorn Country (Photo: Government of Alberta).

Were provincial officials taking part in town hall meetings on the Alberta Government’s plan to create a park in west central Alberta’s Bighorn Country really harassed and threatened by all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts opposed to restrictions on their motorized activity in the environmentally sensitive Rocky Mountain Foothills between Banff and Jasper national parks?

When Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips announced last week that open houses in Red Deer, Sundre, Drayton Valley and Edmonton on the proposed Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park would be cancelled after allegations of bullying at similar meetings before Christmas in Rocky Mountain House, the Opposition United Conservative Party accused her of lying and insulting rural Albertans.

A map showing the proposed Bighorn Wildland Provincial Park (Image: Government of Alberta).

Ms. Phillips was the author of some of her own difficulties by saying the RCMP had an open investigation into harassment complaints. They didn’t, and she swiftly corrected her statement.

That was far from the “blatant lie” Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA and UCP House Leader Jason Nixon tried to make it out to be. But while Mr. Nixon argued there were no documented cases, only accusations, political bullying is not exactly unheard of in rural Alberta, in particular when it involves destructive ATV use in environmentally sensitive places.

It’s likely the accusations and the government’s security concerns about future meetings are fully justified, despite the cynical effort by the UCP, which certainly knows better, to spin the cancelled town halls as an NDP plot to stifle broad public opposition to a plan that in reality extends well back into the Progressive Conservative era.

Joe Anglin, former Wildrose MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre pushed aside by Mr. Nixon in 2015, dismissed the current MLA’s position in a Facebook comment: “Any claim there has been a lack of consultation for the Big Horn is sheer nonsense,” he wrote, noting that the consultation process began under the PC premiership of Ed Stelmach.

“If there is any criticism due concerning the consultation process underway,” Mr. Anglin continued, it should be directed at premiers Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford for failing to “act more assertively to protect Alberta’s watersheds.”

For its part, Postmedia’s Alberta newspapers – despite their anti-NDP editorial bias and pro-UCP headline writers – soon established that seven government employees and one member of the public had lodged complaints about harassment, a threat and shoving at the meetings in Rocky, whether or not the RCMP investigated.

Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Moreover, Postmedia reported, Mr. Nixon knew of at least one other complaint from a business person in the town of Nordegg – since the news organization has a copy of that email and it was addressed to him.

Others with similar experiences are now starting to come out of the woodwork. On Saturday, former government employee Ken Yackimec of Lac La Biche wrote in a letter to the editor that “I can attest that this has happened and I am sure that it still does.”

As a public employee attempting to consult with locals on land use in Northern Alberta several years ago, he wrote, he and his colleagues “had the experience of being verbally abused by a group of ATV users for daring to even float the idea that they might not always be able to ride their ATVs where they wanted, how they wanted and to leave the place in any condition they wanted.”

Similarly, wildlife photographer Stephen Legault posted on Facebook Jan. 8 that, “while the current threats relate to the public consultation around the Bighorn Wildland, similar intimidation went on during the prolonged debate over the Castle Wildland Provincial Park.” That park, in southwestern Alberta, was approved in January 2017.

He described being told at a stakeholders’ dinner “the last person to come around here and bully the locals got shot.” Another guest “proceeded to tell me and other representatives of the conservation community – invited guests at this event – that we had better not mess with the Bighorn, ‘or else.’”

Mr. Legault continued: “I’ve lived here for 28 years. I’ve written books about the people, their culture, and our magnificent landscape. I’ve collaborated with and debated premiers and half a dozen Progressive Conservative Ministers of the Environment, and spent my entire adult life advocating for this wild, beautiful place. Never before have I received so many threats against my safety and my life.”

UCP House Leader and Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Jason Nixon (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“The fact is, the Bighorn debate is no longer about protecting headwaters, but about the upcoming election. The UCP and the local MLA Jason Nixon have politicized this issue to the extent that it is no longer possible to untangle it from the vitriolic hatred some Albertans feel for the current NDP government and their desire to turn back the clock to a time when they could get pretty much anything they want.”

Noting that “the plan for managing the Bighorn is really just a modest evolution of previous plans that non-consumptive users and many consumptive users have been calling for over a number of decades,” a farmer in the area told me that “it is really critical that ATV use is managed, because fish habitat and water quality is being destroyed by indiscriminate use.”

“When you hike out there, you can see fens (fresh water bogs) being drained by ATV tracks cut into the ground,” he said. “Of course this affects creeks and fish habitat as well, not to mention the critical aquifers, which supply well water to farms and ranches hundreds of miles downstream.”

Because of the hysteria fanned by the UCP, he added, “public meetings have been and can be expected to be taken over by thugs and I no longer bother going, nor I suspect, do most decent people.”

However, he warned, replacing public meetings with online consultations is a problem too, because that opens the process “to anyone in the world, so developers who want to commercialize the whole area will have input into what is our back yard and our home place.”

Former Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Joe Anglin (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The government will hold telephone town halls on Tuesday for Drayton Valley and Sundre residents, Wednesday for residents of Red Deer and its surrounding area, and Thursday, Jan. 24, for people in Edmonton.

“The minister needs to make it clear this is a made-in-Alberta plan with a long pedigree that will not be derailed or changed by big capital or other carpetbaggers. She also needs to recognize that the motorized ATV crowd is hardly universally opposed to the plan.”

Pushing the consultations forward in an election year was a risky move, since it was likely to enrage a destructive motorized subculture with a history of opposition to parks in areas it views as its playground, and an opposition party willing to take its side.

To every thing there is a season, as King Solomon said, and this sure doesn’t seem like the right season for this debate. But while it may not have been wise for the NDP to pick this fight this year, they have. So why not act boldly and win it by implementing the plan immediately to protect our resource for the greater good of all Albertans?

Minister Phillips would be entirely justified to say the consultation process has gone on long enough. It has.

The UCP, which has thoroughly politicized a non-partisan process for partisan reasons would howl, and threaten a battle of biblical proportions, but it’s not as if the radical ATV vote is going to go to the NDP anyway.

Ms. Phillips might even win some votes for the NDP among the many rural hunters, anglers, trappers, horse packers and guides who support preserving this beautiful area and are appalled by the destructive activities of the ATV crowd.

ATV users won’t go away without a fight, of course. As the interview subject of an undated online article for ATV users observed of past efforts to keep access to the Bighorn unrestricted, “in about 2000, the government actually wanted to turn it into a park.” That “would have eliminated a lot of users – motorized for starters. … Whenever any of these access plans come into place, you cannot walk away. Your guard has to be up constantly.”

And political bullying in rural Alberta won’t go away either. It’s a category of rural crime that doesn’t seem to bother the province’s conservatives very much – probably because it’s almost always perpetrated by their own fringe.

But fortune favours the brave.

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  1. This almost sounds like the grazing lease program that benefits about a handful of ranchers on land owned by Albertan’s (Canadians) and costs Albertan’s millions of dollars for those few to benefit. Ralpf Klein ran away from dealing with these few ranchers who benefit by millions of dollars from our land because he didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to deal with them. Why isn’t the great Jason Kenny stepping up to the plate and protect the Bighorn Park Plan or denounce the grazing lease program, I don’t think he has the intestinal fortitude to do any of these so why would be make a good premier for this province if he won’t protect Albertan’s?

    1. My first thought too!
      These (and those) nutjobs think they have some kind of right to use and destroy some piece of the common public lands, while keeping others out, because a) they believe Klein said so, and b) they believe they are “stewards”.

  2. Well Said David,

    You pretty much nailed it. This is a small but very vocal minority. I imagine most of the quad users along the Trunk Road are not even actual members of the AOHVTR. For many years I have frequented the area every summer with friends so that we can get “off the grid” for a few days. I have had the privilege of flyfishing in some spectacular mountain streams in the North Ram drainage. I’ve also experienced some less than spectacular interaction with other recreational users. I was once flyfishing in the middle of the Hummingbird River at a common access point. A local “camper” decided it was time to assert his dominance of “this is my area”. He was camped up the road in a 5th wheel about a hundred meters off the river. He hopped on his quad (shorts and sandals), drove down INTO the middle of the river not 10 meters from me, filled 2 x 5 gallon pails with river water, gave me “the look”, and drove back up to his campsite.

    That is the level of arrogance and disrespect I have seen. The number of campsites we have come across (and cleaned up) just makes you shake your head. People leaving tarps, tents, bedding and clothes everywhere; collecting bottles and cans along the streams till my pack is full; OHV ruts and “wallows” in fens, bogs, and other wetlands that most wouldn’t even recognize as important to our watersheds. It really is too much.

    This is a long standing problem that previous governments have deliberately dragged their feet on addressing. Every Albertan should conduct the online survey (please read ALL the details of the plan), make an informed and considered response (not the heavily biased responses certain groups are suggesting), and lets get this done!

  3. I just love the context of Jason Nixon making any kind of comment about bullying given his history. Below is something I put together on my own:

    In 2009, before becoming a politician, Jason Nixon was working at Mountain Aire Lodge, an addict recovery centre. In April of that year, Nixon, as well as a recovering addict living at the centre, and 2 others, came upon a dead horse on an isolated road. It was a safety hazard, so the group of them pushed it off the road. The incident was probably forgotten about at that point.

    At the time, however, there was apparently a problem with people shooting wild horses in the foothills, and a $25,000 reward was available for tips on catching people responsible.

    Unfortunately, over the course of the few months after the April 2009 non-event, the recovering addict relapsed and, desperate for cash, went to the RCMP and reported Nixon for having illegally shot the horse, then immediately asked for his reward. In January of 2010 the RCMP arrested Nixon in an excessively violent arrest, and Nixon eventually sued the police for the wrongful arrest.

    Lisa Corbella reports on the arrest in her column


    Reading Corbella’s story, the reader is left wondering what would possess the RCMP to engage in such a violent arrest.

    Imbedded, timewise, with this event, was another brush Mr. Nixon had with the law, which Ms Corbella chose to ignore. On January 4 of 2010 a conservation officer appeared at Mountain Aire Lodge investigating an illegally shot deer. Nixon got annoyed with the officer’s persistence, and (allegedly?) said to a colleague that he was ‘going to manhandle’ the conservation officer in a minute. (Nixon’s comment was picked up by the conservation officer’s camera, presented in court and acknowledged by the judge. I don’t know if that establishes it as fact or if it remains ‘alleged’.)

    Unfortunately, Ms Corbella does not give the precise date of Nixon’s excessively violent arrest, but since the deer incident happened on Jan 4, it is quite likely that the arrest occurred after. If so, when the police were doing their preparation for the arrest, they would have seen that Nixon is a giant of a man (Corbella’s words) who was under investigation for threatening a conservation (i.e. law enforcement) officer. With that background, it isn’t hard to see how the police would feel the need for caution when making the arrest, especially since it was also quite likely there were firearms on the premises.

    On April 27, 2011, the horse killing charges were withdrawn shortly after Nixon’s trial started. Six weeks later Nixon was back in court on the threatening the conservation officer charge. Since his manhandling comment was recorded, Nixon could hardly deny he made it. Instead he testified he had just said it to another man standing nearby, and it wasn’t meant for the conservation officer to hear, in spite of the fact it was said clearly enough for the recording equipment on the conservation truck to pick up.

    When ruling on the case, the judge accepted Jason Nixon’s claim that the comment was not intended for the conservation officer’s ears. I find it incomprehensible that ‘he wasn’t supposed to hear it’ can be used a defense against threatening a law enforcement officer. This whole situation really feels like the judge gave Nixon a pass on the threatening charge because he had been so egregiously mistreated in the horse case. My guess is that is also why the crown chose not to appeal the acquittal.


  4. The AB Govt needs to put science and scientists front and centre.
    “This is the science, this is reality, and we’re going to act on it.”

    The selfish interests of the OHV community should not be allowed to compete with the science. No more than the interests of the oil industry should be allowed to delay or obstruct climate action.
    Otherwise, we’re saying that we are prepared to set aside scientific realities for political purposes. That can only result in disaster. Like a car driver following her GPS voice instructions to continue straight ahead when the bridge is out.
    The Govt also needs to consider the interests of future generations and the other species with whom we share the planet — neither of whom has a voice or a vote.

    There are times when government must simply do the right thing and ignore the noise. This is one of them. Environmental protection and climate action should be top priority. We won’t get a second chance.

  5. Good article, but I think I disagree with your calculus on how politically risky this is. The only scientific poll there has been on where Albertans stand on the proposal show 73% support across Alberta and only 16% opposition, including 81% of undecided voters and 56% of likely UCP voters. You’ll note that Nixon doesn’t actually criticize the propsal itself, as he knows parks are broadly popular (and a park that allows all existing uses – including the current ATV plan) is hard to attack.

    I think there is actually more risk to the UCP in terms of their positioning on this if they alienate the mainstream in the cities and are seen as anti-park and anti-conservation.

    1. Dan I would say the political risk on this proposal was created by Minister Phillips. By cancelling public consultation based on a lie that the RCMP had active investigations underway makes it look like the NDP is trying to ram this decision through. There is no doubt there is broad public support for this proposal, unfortunately Minister Phillips played her hand badly.

  6. You have got to know that when Joe Anglin can be the clear voice of reason, you guys have jumped the shark! Do you? Do you need remedial education? Is Jason Kenney a total slime ball? Is his left nut man Jason Nixon an a**l aperture of biblical proportions? I mean good lord! These people think we can rent tragic labour from other countries to suppress wages here. They think women are to be tolerated but controlled. They think brown is bad if things aren’t good! For frack sake! Get a grip! https://youtu.be/-STFyfsdoVA

  7. In the 1990s small – c – actual conservation-minded voters supported designating the best candidate parks on AB public lands by a 2 to 1 ratio. PCs own public opinion results.

    Just like on the Bighorn now, based on a recent poll, the PCs found strong support for new parks among what I would argue are the long standing majority of actual small – c- voters, rural and urban conservative leaning citizens, who have always wanted more actual *conservation* action to protect AB’s best lands and water and wildlife habitat. More than their elected political leadership has delivered in the last decades.

    Here’s last weeks poll results.
    68% of UCP voters support Bighorn 32%* oppose (that have an opinion, 56% support net otherwise) in the Advanis/CPAWS poll at the link below.

    All of the other parties voters and the undecided voters – 78% to 92% support Bighorn.

    96% of NDP voters* support Bighorn Country (* with an opinion, 92% net)


    Majority high support across all Alberta’s regions, north, south, central, Edm, Calgary.

    That conservative voter majority of AB’s doesn’t want all of AB public lands disposed of to industry development and OHVr motorized free-for-all. Never has. These are the same people I know from my hometown rural AB region, who supported my own work on parks advocacy in the 90s when I was staff for a parks and wilderness conservation group.

    For anyone who wants the details, and the maps of the BighornCountry parks and public land use zones in the proposal, the online survey page here: https://talkaep.alberta.ca/bighorn-country

    Current political opinion makers in the media on the right in bed with UCP/OHVrs are engaging in the usual partisan smears of the NDP, this time for supposedly not listening to locals and doing a rushed process, and that’s always predictable. And of course with social media, the BS fear-mongering histrionics travel at light speed of course.

    Regarding this ‘sheer nonsense’ about Bighorn lack of consultation, as Joe Anglin puts it, smearing the NDP and Bighorn process, see at the link below the best shortest summary of the process and the list of the wide range of local rural stakeholders, industry and politicians that led the regional planning process that gave rise to the Bighorn NDP proposal, which as noted the PCs had launched for North Sask. region back in 2014, including the Bighorn parks now proposed.


    The regional consultation process held 21 public open house local meetings to gather public input on conservation options for the regions lands/waters including Bighorn.

    And that Regional Advisory Committee’s final recommendations included a “Proposed Conservation Area” which is now 87% of the exact area the NDP Bighorn parks cover off.

    Polls showing support shouldn’t be the first and/or necessary reason gov’t’s protect the best public lands and waters and home ranges for sensitive wildlife like grizzlies and bull trout. But history shows Albertans have in fact expressed, for decades, majority support for more parks.

    The PCs just kept expanding industry almost everywhere and turning a blind-eye to rampant uncontrolled OHV use and catered to them, until only a few relatively unscathed areas are left in central AB, like Bighorn, so far not logged or mined and with limited OHV damage compared to most areas west of Rocky.

    BTW, the NDP loudly announced that the OHVrs also get to keep their designated OHV existing trails in the Bighorn Wildland park. See the OHV trails on the before and after maps at https://talkaep.alberta.ca/bighorn-country/documents Under this link: https://talkaep.alberta.ca/bighorn-country/documents
    Quite galling that despite this they still oppose the NDP’s proposal.

    The NDP gave $200,000 last year to the two local OHV clubs with trails in Bighorn parks for their own trail work. PCs have been handing out money on this scale for the last two decades to OHVrs. ‘taxpayer dollars’ as the right would say.

    So what gives… What else can we give the OHVrs…? oh yeah, don’t designate public parks on ‘their’ public lands in ‘their backyard’. Lands that actually happen to be the common public property to all Albertans but hey, OHVrs apparently obtained a veto over access to what they call ‘our backyard’.

    Gov’t should back off, hands off! ‘their lands’. A legitimate elected government that’s supposed to manage these lands as a public trust for all of us and future generations should just cede these public lands to the local OHVrs, apparently.

    Check their FB group pages if you think I’m inventing what the ‘it’s our land’ ‘gov’t get out’ ‘you don’t live here so you don’t get a say’ opinions in the comments sections.

    I don’t know how anyone can see their argument as anything but as a bid to disenfranchise the rest of Alberta’s citizenry from democratic governance of Alberta’s public provincial (Crown lands). A minority special interest arguing for effective domination of zoning and protection/conservation decisions about public lands and waters in rural Alberta. And the rest of should just stay in our cities and mind our own business.

    Again, don’t take my word for what I see as in their comments as at root, an undemocratic argument and lobby, check their social media group pages yourself.

    The columnists hammering the NDP in the RW media pages are blowing smoke that’s providing cover for an actual special interest attempted ku-da-tah takeover of some public lands that has actually won out over the public good before. A special interest user group that is now freaked out because a government more like the Lougheed conservatives is now actually governing for all Albertans on the North Saskatchewan regional plan/proposed Bighorn Country, and protecting the same lands as parks that Premier Getty almost protected in 1986. Same rough boundaries. Still in pretty good intact shape. No clearcut logging happened. No oil/gas/mining for the most part. And the Bighorn Country proposal will put an end to that industrial threat for good. For all Albertans and future generations.

    1. correction: I’ve been corrected that the $200,000 taxpayer dollars didn’t all go to 2 OHV clubs. It was split between only one OHV club and another local trail club for mostly horse riding trails. ok. I glitched. Big f’n whoop.

      So, as a taxpayer in Alberta for over 40 years, I still want the NDP to take back the ‘taxpayer’ money they gave to this ungrateful entitled OHV lobby until they stop telling the rest of us to shut the hell the up and let them control the fate of Alberta’s public lands that the NDP have designated as Bighorn parks. Which again, are public common property for all Albertans for the record, that have been identified as premium public land for wildlife habitat values and wildland recreation values and water supply watersheds going back to Getty PCs maps in the 80s and conservation groups research in the 60s!

  8. Public hearings that have become partisan politcal sabotage should be either shut down or attended by police security to discourage threats and deal with ones made.

    BC Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell invited NDP Opposition leader Carole James to chair hearings up and down the Coast on fish-farm practices. Ms James dutifully completed the job and her committee recommended phasing open-net fish-farming out in favour of closed systems.

    But the whole while and at every single hearing, shock troops of fish-farm employees and their shills pretending to be ordinary citizens dominated and aggressed committee members and citizens speaking to their concerns about fish-farm pollution. Some of the submissions were patently ridiculous, intended, we must suspect, to hog speaking time and preclude hearing submissions with which pro-fish-farm attendees didn’t like. (At one meeting the speaker demanded that scientific data not be submissable because, he said, it purposely excluded non-scientists like himself who don’t understand technical stuff and shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to by ‘special interests.’) Such excuses for public hearing are worse than unproductive. (The BC Liberal government shelved Ms James’ report—apparently it was sufficient the NDP wear some of this debate unfavourably; after all, the chair needn’t have been a political partisan at all.)

    I agree: skip the hearings and get on with protecting the environment. Let the feral men spend their ammo on it. As you say: they ain’t gone vote NDP anyhow.

  9. This current imbroglio is very much related to the Castle debacle. Ms. Phillips used up all her trust on the “heroic” reversal which had OHV groups told every thing was fine. Then, oh sorry you’re out in five years. On the upside the provincial organizations are getting to talk to government. Out in rural Alberta we have been on radio silence for just about three years.

  10. I’m sure lots of you supporters will start to write letters to the RCMP and other political believers to say you have been harassed or bullied even if it’s a lie to push your agenda. Pushing this through will be the demise of your precious ndp. The election can’t come fast enough! The majority you always speak of will show you who wants what in this province. Before you delete this post I will let you know it will be screen shot and shared just like all the other peoples comments that oppose you.

    1. I hope this contribution didn’t eat into any of your mud-wallowing or trolling time—I mean, fish-trolling, of course —that is, if you can find some un-muddied water someplace to do it in.

      I can’t help but notice that many hunters and anglers who you’d think were card(s) carrying conservatives would be okay with restricting where off-roaders can play in the mud, scare off the game and choke out the fish. What do you think?—do you think?—you think?—think?
      (Damn! Am I being slowly deleted?)

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