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Lockdown of Kananaskis rescue communications during election raises concern

“We know they want to be careful about releasing information that could have an impact on the election, but here we’re just talking about reports of information that we’re accustomed to getting that can help people make decisions about travel and safety … It seems to me that a little bit more information would be appropriate to divulge.”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Alberta Parks employees have been tight-lipped regarding rescues and other matters of public safety in the crown jewel of the province’s parks system throughout the provincial election.

Since the writ dropped May 1, the Outlook has made several inquiries about rescues and wildlife warnings, but Alberta Parks continues to cite the Election Act and election communication policy as reasons for their inability to address such concerns.

“We know they want to be careful about releasing information that could have an impact on the election, but here we’re just talking about reports of information that we’re accustomed to getting that can help people make decisions about travel and safety … It seems to me that a little bit more information would be appropriate to divulge,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist with Mount Royal University.

Williams noted it’s important to bear in mind that the decision not to discuss these matters isn’t being made by political officials, but by deputy ministers practicing an abundance of caution communicating what’s happening on the ground.

“An independent civil servant is making a judgment call about what constitutes public safety information versus information that isn’t essential,” she said. “Anything that is deemed non-essential information is not going to be provided to avoid influencing the election.

“It’s a delicate line to walk and I think what they’re trying to do is avoid saying anything that might be perceived as triggering a conversation about policies that are in play in the election or issues that are elections issues. Somebody’s trying to strike that balance, walk that fine line, and whether they do so successfully or not is something we may not know for a bit.”

Last week, the Outlook reached out to Alberta Parks to  inquire about an incident that Kananaskis Mountain Rescue reportedly responded to on May 13 involving a man who was seriously injured on the Troll Falls trail in the Evan-Thomas Provincial Recreation Area. Alberta Parks did not respond to allow the Outlook to speak with rescuers and share details of the event or to confirm that a rescue response was needed.

Alberta Health Services EMS did confirm that the man was ‘seriously injured’ and transported to Canmore General Hospital via ground ambulance, but said further information was unavailable, and recommended reaching out to local search and rescue for more details.

Joe Pavelka, a professor of ecotourism and outdoor leadership with Mount Royal, said within the area of adventure and outdoor risk management, discussing near misses or close calls is an important part of overall communication.

Students and faculty discuss identifying human, environmental and mechanical risks at length before embarking on a trip to mitigate as much risk as possible.

After a trip, they debrief anything that went wrong and how those issues, where possible, can be mitigated in the future.

“We debrief all of our trips from the perspective of any near misses, and we talk about those things openly because they’re really important,” said Pavelka.

“This has never been political. Risk management and public safety is not political.”

With the provincial election spanning four weeks and during a change in seasons, with warmer weather and more people visiting the region, Pavelka said it is all the more important to keep the lines of communication open.

“What if we have a growing trend in the first two or three weeks? That is exactly one of the reasons why this kind of communication is very important. To me, it’s a little bit confounding, especially over a prolonged period like with the provincial election,” he said.

“If you have people with very little experience going out into the mountains and making the same mistake over and over again, that’s exactly the kind of thing the public needs to know about. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to shield or hold back that kind of information, even during an election.”

Last year, Kananaskis rescuers responded to at least 15 fatalities, up from an average of about 10. Almost half of those were fatal drownings.

Four of the six drowning incidents occurred at Spray Lakes Reservoir. On July 10, three people drowned after their boat capsized in the water, and on Aug. 7, a Calgary man drowned trying to save a dog that had gone underwater.

The other two fatalities occurred at Kananaskis River near Seebe Dam and at Lake Magog in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in B.C., according to Alberta Parks.

As is the case every year, there were many more "near misses" as Pavelka calls them, involving injuries sustained in falls, climbing accidents, mountain biking crashes, and other outdoor activities.

The elections communication policy is clear that responses from the province to media inquiries are limited so as not to sway the outcome of the election. However, it also clearly states matters of public health and safety are the exception.

Information about wildfires and resulting poor air quality is still being shared by the province, as are trail closures and wildlife warnings, including a cougar encounter on the Kent Ridge trail over the May long weekend.

In an email to the Outlook, Alberta Parks communications advisor Bridget Burgess-Ferrari said the encounter involved a cougar “[which] reportedly followed a hiker at a distance for approximately two kilometres.”

“After receiving the report, conservation officers responded; however, the cougar had left the area,” said Burgess-Ferrari.

The warning, she added, will remain in place for a few days. 

Burgess-Ferrari further noted that warnings are typically issued as a precautionary measure, and the presence of a warning does not necessarily indicate an imminent threat to public safety.

Williams acknowledged there is information provided when there is imminent danger.

"But there’s still questions I think a lot of Albertans have about why other public safety information isn’t more forthcoming," she said.

Shaun Peter, owner of Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation, said there’s a lot of information that may seem obvious to people that are experienced in recreating outdoors and in the mountains, but is missed by people that are new to various mountain activities, or who are just new to the area, and bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere.

“Any of that information that can get passed along, we try to do that by sharing rescues that Kananaskis Mountain Rescue responds to. There’s a lot of tips that come through that that can help other people when they’re out there and prevent more accidents in the future,” said Peter.

“It’s invaluable information to have, especially right now. It feels like summer down in the valley bottoms, but it’s really not in the upper reaches of the mountains. A lot of people that are unfamiliar with the snowpack, avalanche risks and navigating the terrain right now can learn hugely valuable lessons from others’ mistakes.”

Peter referenced an event the Outlook reported on in April when two people cliffed out after deciding to take an alternate route down Mount Yamnuska after reaching the summit.

The hikers lost the trail and ended up in a position where they were forced to spend a night on the mountain before rescuers could reach them by helicopter the next morning.

“It’s really disappointing anytime, for political reasons or whatever, that there’s kind of an isolation of that knowledge and those experiences, where it’s only being shared within the mountain rescue program and not getting out to the public," said Peter.

Noting it is not the fault of rescuers that these experiences are not always shared with the public, Peter said their job is to perform rescues, not to update their social media every time they respond to an event.

As an avid mountain recreationist, Peter said he often looks back on the time he spent outdoors when he was less experienced in understanding and being prepared for the risks of the terrain.

“Some of the trips that I did, I’m just kind of horrified thinking about them in retrospect, because I didn’t have the knowledge to know that I was being stupid at the time,” he said.

But the attitude around making those mistakes has transformed from a place of being shamed, to a place of appreciation for sharing one’s negative experience.

“You see a lot of posts online in different forums that are for backcountry adventures with people making similar remarks, and the response to that, instead of being shamed, it’s changed a lot to a point where people are being thanked for sharing,” said Peter.

“Anything that can trigger in your head, ‘hey, this is actually something that happened to somebody else, and I need to be aware of this,’ is a good thing.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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