First Nations excluded from land use planning

April 14, 2009

Pity nobody asked First Nations about the biggest review of Manitoba land-use policies in the last 15 years.

This month, the Doer government announced the province will overhaul its policies on land use to better balance the competing interests of development with industry and conservation, heritage and environment. The last time this happened was 1994.

Decisions are probably a year away so the blueprint isn’t set yet; but once it is, that plan will help to chart the course of Manitoba into the 21st century.

Eight town hall forums are planned, from April 20 to May 4, in various locations around the province, including one meeting at the Norwood Hotel in Winnipeg April 27.

A 64-page document entitled Provincial Land Use Policies, Draft for Consultation, includes some perfunctory references to First Nations. They’re restricted to references to the outstanding 1.4 million acres in treaty land entitlement obligations that make up roughly one per cent of the province’s land mass. The best thing that can be said about that process is that progress is, at best, glacial.

The latest document completely ignores the issue of traditional land use, a surprising omission given the Doer government’s progressive record on honouring First Nations in Manitoba.

After all, Manitoba was the first province to introduce First Nation community land-use planning legislation.

Doer is enjoying attention on the international stage for his efforts to preserve a 40,000-square-kilometres area of pristine boreal forest, in the Pimachiowin Aki, the proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site. It shows Doer listens to the people he shares the province with on this land.

Pimachiowin Aki is a First Nations-led land use plan that grew out of ancient links to the boreal region for the people of Poplar River First Nation, on the northeast side of Lake Winnipeg.

So what happened? Why are First Nations curiously absent from the biggest land use review in recent memory?

First Nation leaders are asking the premier those questions right now.

If the people of Manitoba don’t want First Nations to hold up progress, why do they elect officials who sideline First Nations when it comes to land?

It’s a bullying tactic. Nobody would take such disregard lying down.

First Nations aren’t opposed to land development. There’s no intent to frustrate the process here. In fact, First Nations applaud the process; it shows a careful regard of the land and the need to guard it for the future.

At the same time, today’s leaders have an obligation to guard the land for future generations of First Nations, too. Court rulings from coast to coast reinforce the obligation to preserve those ancient links between the First Peoples and the land.

Premier Gary Doer might well take a page from Fair Country, the book authored by the former governor general’s husband, John Ralston Saul.

Canada recognizes its English and French roots at the expense of its First Nation roots at the peril of losing its sense of identity to the land.

Something worth remembering right now.

Ron Evans is grand chief of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs.

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