October 8, 2005

After 300 years of white guys telling Manitoba’s indigenous people where to live, who to worship and generally what to do, the last thing aboriginals need is more advice from some annoying European.

Today, however, I’m going to wander out on a politically incorrect limb and be the latest in a long line of colonialist jerks to question the wisdom of a native leader.

I’m talking about Ovide Mercredi, chief of Grand Rapids First Nation and the former boss of the Assembly of First Nations, who would rather see logging in the forests surrounding his band than have the area become Manitoba’s third national park.

As Free Press environment reporter Helen Fallding reported earlier this week, the charismatic and respected Mercredi is no fan of a long-delayed plan to convert two huge parcels of land on the west side of Lake Winnipeg into the proposed Manitoba Lowlands National Park.

During the waning days of the Chretien government, Parks Canada delighted conservationists by putting a tentative stamp of approval on a 4,500-square-kilometre park that would protect hundreds of kilometres of pristine Lake Winnipeg shoreline, dramatic limestone cliffs, one of the world’s longest sand peninsulas and also forests that happen to be the only place in North America where you can find all five of the continent’s major ungulates: moose, caribou, deer, elk and even a herd of reintroduced bison.

Most of this area is completely pristine, thanks to low population density and limited development. The Lowlands’ limestone bedrock doesn’t allow soil to drain very well, which means much of the area is composed of swamps that are perfect for plants and animals, but not so great for building logging roads or mini-malls.

Conservationists weren’t the only people to get excited about the park. Manitoba’s still-embryonic eco-tourism industry was licking its lips over the prospects of a new national park that could provide wilderness travel and wildlife-watching opportunities within a five-hour drive of Winnipeg.

Riding Mountain, Manitoba’s first national park, is under stress from too many visitors. Wapusk National Park near Churchill gets barely any at all, owing both to its isolation and its role as a restricted polar bear sanctuary.

Manitoba Lowlands would be the perfect middle ground – a place as wild as Wapusk but as accessible as Riding Mountain.

And as a bonus, the creation of a new national park – the best possible “brand” in eco-tourism – would bring visitors from across Canada and around the world up lonely Highway 6 into an economically depressed area most people merely speed through on the way to Thompson, turning both the town of Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids First Nation into gateway communities.

To anyone who regularly visits national parks, the benefits seem obvious. Grand Rapids will never be the next Banff, but it could easily expect a couple of thousand visitors a year.

That said, Grand Rapids Chief Mercredi is dead against the plan, largely because he doesn’t believe federal promises to protect First Nations hunting, trapping and fishing rights.

On one hand, I can’t blame the guy. Historically speaking, the Canadian government doesn’t have the greatest record of honouring its commitments to First Nations. Why trust Whitey now when he’s been lying for 300 years?

But on the other hand, I believe Mercredi is being disingenuous, on a number of counts. His staunch opposition to the park seems odd for a man of his education and experience.

First, Mercredi says tourism in the region is not dependent on park status. That’s something he could not possibly believe, after travelling Canada from coast to coast in his former capacity as grand chief.

Even more contentiously, Mercredi is opposed to a park because he wants to see the area open up to logging. This, too, is a red herring, because Supreme Court rulings ensure any final agreement on the park would include provisions for logging – as well as hunting, fishing and trapping – by members of the Grand Rapids, Mosakahiken, Chemawawin and possibly Norway House First Nations.

Unfortunately, there currently is no deal, because all the interested parties have either refused to come the table or haven’t been invited.

Public hearings about the park, originally slated to begin last year, have not taken place. Community leaders like Mercredi have played the N.I.M.B.Y. card without even considering the park proposal.

And Marilyn Peckett, the only Parks Canada employee assigned to the Lowlands file, has left for a gig at uncontentious Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

It’s too bad, because she had the perfect background for the Lowlands job. She’s an expert in the effects of national parks on First Nations, having conducted research into what happened to southwestern Manitoba bands following the creation of Riding Mountain.

The feds are not going to replace Peckett until they find out what Manitoba’s government wants to do about the park. Premier Gary Doer, in turn, will defer to the will of the Lowlands communities, as he’s wisely unwilling to tell First Nations – a core NDP constituency – how to move about their own backyard.

That leaves the park in the hands of the noble but underfunded Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and First Nations leaders themselves.

Ovide Mercredi clearly is the most visible and influential among them. Call me naive, but I refuse to believe a man who commands the respect of so many people, aboriginal and otherwise, has such little respect for the protection of the sanctity of the land.

Granted, it’s been decades if not centuries since indigenous self-determination and conservationism were one and the same cause. But I find it ironic this park may die at the hands of its natural guardians.

Then again, who cares what I think? – I’m just some annoying schmuck whose ancestors came from Europe.

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