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Alberta

Environmental groups raise concerns about proposed Calgary-to-Banff passenger train

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By Colette Derworiz in Calgary

Conservation advocates and experts are concerned a proposal for a Calgary-to-Banff passenger train is chugging along without addressing some key environmental issues in and around the national park.

Liricon Capital Inc., the lead private-sector proponent, is touting it as a hydrogen-powered transportation solution with lower greenhouse gas emissions than driving.

The company says it has received support from municipalities and the tourism industry, but the Alberta government has told the Globe and Mail it won’t invest in the $1.5-billion train as it stands because the financial risks are too high.

Environmental organizations — including Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yellowstone to Yukon and Bow Valley Naturalists — and some scientists say the proposal also has environmental risks.

“This is one of the most important conservation landscapes in North America,” Tony Clevenger, a senior wildlife research scientist with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, said from Banff, Alta. “It also happens to be one of the busiest in terms of transportation infrastructure.

“The thought of this new rail line, which would be really close to the existing rail line, is really troublesome — not just in the park, but outside the park on provincial lands and Stoney Nakoda (First Nations) as well.”

Concerns include wildlife deaths along the rail line — particularly grizzly bears, which have been hit and killed on the existing track — and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat in Alberta’s already busy Bow Valley.

Josh Welsh, Alberta program manager for Yellowstone to Yukon, said passenger rail to Banff isn’t a bad idea.

“We see it as a means to potentially provide a sustainable transportation vision that could work for wildlife, people and the planet,” he said.

But, he added, there’s not enough information or collaboration to know whether it works for wildlife.

“The Bow Valley is already being squeezed by development.”

A recent report by the Canmore, Alta.-based organization found the mountain town’s footprint has grown five times in 50 years. It focused on grizzly bears because “if you take care of grizzlies, you take care of a lot of other things.”

The report found bears have lost about 85 per cent of their original habitat in the Bow Valley.

“So, when you talk about another piece of linear infrastructure, which a train line is … we are talking about cutting up the habitat, disconnecting wildlife,” he said.

Devon Earl, conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, said the Calgary-based organization has similar concerns.

“We don’t think there has been adequate assessment of how wildlife will be impacted,” she said.

She also questions whether a train would actually reduce cars on the highway, saying bus service may be more cost-effective.

Liricon has said Parks Canada needs to consider raising the entry fee to Banff National Park for private passenger vehicles and expanding bus and shuttle service between park attractions.

Parks Canada said in a statement that its first priority is to protect the ecological integrity in national parks, but it’s “not currently reviewing a proposal for passenger rail in Banff National Park.” Any review, it added, would look at policy and legislation, including the Impact Assessment Act and park priorities.

Jan Watrous, managing partner with Liricon, said a study shows the train could carry about 11 million passengers annually and reduce highway traffic.

“The fact that the passenger train will be a zero-emission hydrogen train and significantly reduce vehicle traffic … means human and wildlife mortality on the highways will be dramatically reduced,” she said. “The specifics of the hydrogen solution and wildlife mitigations will be determined through consultation.”

The company has said it’s considering using technology such as lighting or sound to warn animals about approaching trains and reduce wildlife deaths on the tracks.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist with the University of Alberta, said she spoke to Liricon about that idea, which came out of some research she led.

Although early tests show it can be effective for some wildlife, she said “there’s a lot of untested terrain in a warning-based system.”

St. Clair said there could also be challenges with wildlife crossing structures that go over or under the tracks.

Clevenger, who specializes in wildlife crossings, said he’s heard the company was looking at underpasses to align with those under the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park.

“That’s very simplistic and completely unfeasible,” he said. “You can’t put in an underpass on the new rail line without putting an underpass on the (Canadian Pacific Railway) main line. You’d have to do both.”

Clevenger said the measure would reduce already-compromised wildlife habitat.

A passenger train, he added, could end up increasing overall traffic to the national park.

“It’s a landscape that is just overflowing with people,” he said. “I don’t think they can manage it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022

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Alberta

‘Short-term pain’: Group of Alberta lawyers escalate job action over legal aid cases

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By Bill Graveland in Calgary

Alberta criminal defence lawyers are taking another step in their dispute with the provincial government over the amount of compensation paid by Legal Aid Alberta.

Organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta began job action Aug. 8 by refusing to accept certain bail and duty counsel files from legal aid.

The lawyers also began refusing certificates for new cases for the most serious criminal charges, including sexual offences, firearms-related crimes and homicides.

Beginning Monday, they say all services will be withdrawn.

“We’re going to stop taking all certificates. That will include some our prior job actions still allowed us to take certificates for people who are already existing clients and there will be a very, very limited set of circumstances now where our members will do that,” said Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary.

“The default will be: ‘We are just not taking any new work from legal aid until the problem is fixed.'”

Sitar made her comments at a rally in front of the Calgary Courts Centre on Friday that drew about 50 criminal defence lawyers.

A table with a sign reading “Save Legal Aid” offered bake goods for sale. Lawyers carried signs reading “Access 2 Justice Must be Equal.” Another read: “This sign is too small to fit my outrage.”

“This is drastic. I mean, what we were doing up until now is something I know has happened in Ontario before, it did not last long, frankly,” Sitar said.

“I can tell you that none of us want to be out here. We all want to be in there doing our jobs.”

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro has said nothing is going to be done until a review of the Legal Aid Alberta administrative system is complete, which is scheduled for next month.

He said any budget changes for legal aid wouldn’t happen until next year.

Sitar said the ministry chose to undertake “an incomplete and, frankly, useless review” at a time when the governing United Conservative Party is about to go through a leadership change.

“So we have to act now and they need to respond now,” she said.

Sitar said she understands the people being affected the most by the job action will be people with lower incomes who need the services to afford legal representation.

“It’s short-term pain right now,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate, but I can tell you that most of the people I’ve talked to on the street who are finding themselves caught up in this understand and are grateful that we’re doing it.”

Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the problem has been growing over the last three years. She said when her party was in power, it committed to additional funding for Legal Aid, but the UCP government backtracked.

“We simply cannot be asking the Legal Aid bar to be doing what we are asking them to do at the rate that we are asking them to do it,” she told reporters.

“We have the lowest funding for Legal Aid in the country. What that means is that we don’t have equal access to justice. It undermines the integrity of our justice system and, overall, it undermines our ability to build a sense of community safety, community security and an overall respect for the rule of law — all of which are important to community health and economic growth.

“It sounds like a niche issue, but it’s not. It actually has knock-off effects to very, very important issues that affect all of us. So, the government needs to come to the table and negotiate decently with these lawyers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary.

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Alberta

‘Kind of like carnies’: International balloon festival returns to High River, Alta.

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By Bill Graveland in High River, Alberta

The windswept prairie east of the Rocky Mountains seems an unlikely spot for a hot-air balloon festival, but the town of High River, Alta., is celebrating the event’s 10th year.

More than 20 brightly coloured balloons — including a pink elephant, a black and yellow bee and the purple and yellow Eye of Ra, named after the Egyptian sun god — took advantage of a lull in the prevailing wind this week to get some up-in-the-air time to mark the opening of the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival.

“We get about 50 per cent of our flights off. Weather impacts us everywhere,” said event director Jamie Kinghorn, who is also a town councillor.

“This is our 10th. We started in 2013 partly because of the flood that happened. I’d been to a number of balloon events and thought this might lift the spirits of the folks in town.”

The town of 12,000 just south of Calgary gained an international profile in 2013 when flooding in parts of southern Alberta caused billions of dollars in damage.

High River was one of the hardest-hit communities. Entire neighbourhoods were under water for weeks.

“I called in a bunch of friends from the balloon community and they knew what happened, so 20 of them came into High River and we put on a balloon festival that was actually amazing for the community,” Kinghorn said.

“That was sort of the first major thing toward recovery after the flood and we’ve been doing it every year since at the end of September.”

Kinghorn said the festival is a boon to local tourism and there’s not a hotel room to be had in town.

He had his first hot air balloon over the city of Calgary in 1988. A year later he was a balloon pilot.

There are 23 balloons participating this year, including some from the United States, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Kinghorn said it’s a pretty small community.

“We tend to meet at various events. We tend to travel. We’re kind of like carnies to some extent,” he said with a laugh.

“We travel around to different cities to different balloon events.”

Alan Davidson, who has been involved in the sport since 1977, is one of the volunteers.

He said those who get involved tend to stick with it.

“The amazing thing is that there are still seven or eight of the people I was ballooning with in the ’70s and early ’80s who are still here at this event,” said Davidson. “They’ve been working with balloons for over 40 years.”

Kinghorn, who is the owner and pilot of the Eye of Ra, was the first balloon in the air Thursday morning after a Wednesday evening flight was cancelled due to the wind.

“My God am I glad we got this off,” he said as the flight came to an end.

The festival runs through Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

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