No walk in the park for Cree Nation’s project

March 11, 2009

The Fisher River Cree Nation and an environmental group accused the Doer government Tuesday of foot-dragging in the development of a provincial scenic wilderness park on the southwest basin of Lake Winnipeg.

FRCN is proposing the creation of a park four times the size of Winnipeg to permanently safeguard the area from industrial development and allow it to create jobs in tourism.

However, 10 years after land was first set aside for the park, the project appears to be stalled, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which is assisting the First Nation.

On Tuesday, Fisher River Chief David Crate, joined by several supporters, including Ron Evans, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard, called a news conference to plead his case.

“We wanted to stress to the government that it’s time now to make this park a reality,” Crate said.

The First Nation said it has a petition with 10,000 signatures from Manitobans supporting the project, as well as endorsements from federal and provincial politicians of all stripes and support in principle from nearby Peguis First Nation as well as Jackhead First Nation, which is situated on the proposed park’s northwest border.

The proposed Ochiwasahow (Fisher Bay) Provincial Park sits on First Nations traditional territory and features pristine beaches, old-growth forests and abundant wildlife, including several endangered species, environmentalists said.

Geologically, the area is important for its extensive limestone cave system where thousands of bats hibernate in the winter.

Crate said provincial officials recently suggested that “they don’t have the manpower” to focus on the project.

“The government committed a number of years ago to the establishment of five protected areas in Manitoba, and to date the government hasn’t established one park under this initiative,” Crate told reporters.

Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of CPAWS, said his group believes that if the political will is there to create the park, “then the resources will be there.”

However, Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said the project is not being held up and the government is already conducting consultations with interested parties, as required by law.

“We have people in place that have been doing the work that Chief Crate and Ron Thiessen and I agreed would be done when we met several months ago,” Struthers said.

He added the government has received “indications from some of the neighbouring First Nations” that there may some issues to be worked out, particularly with Fisher River’s expanded park proposal, made in 2006, that nearly doubles the project to 160,000 hectares.

“We have heard from Berens River that there may be something we may need to work through. We have heard from Peguis that there may be something there in terms of treaty land entitlements that we have to make sure is solid,” Struthers said.

He said the government is committed to following through with its plans to create a new park in the area, and it will extend protection of the land beyond October 2010 if the issues have not been resolved by then.

Thiessen, meanwhile, said he thinks “minister Struthers has outdated information.”

The land eyed by Peguis First Nation as a potential treaty entitlement selection has already been removed from the park proposal, he said, while Berens River First Nation had wondered if Berens Island was part of the park proposal—but it’s not.

Other issues, he said, can be dealt with in the formal public consultations that Fisher River Cree Nation and CPAWS are anxious to see the government launch.

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What is being proposed?

A provincial park encompassing 160,000 hectares, surrounding Fisher Bay on Lake Winnipeg, a two-hour drive north of the city. Currently, more than half the area—89,000 hectares—is protected until October 2010.

When did the process start?

The park reserve, covering 89,000 hectares, was established at the request of the Fisher River Cree Nation in 1999, with the view that it would be developed into a provincial park.

Where is the project at?

Critics say it is stalled and they don’t know why. However, the province says work is being carried out behind the scenes to address issues being raised by other First Nation communities near the proposed park.

What happened Tuesday?

The chief of the Fisher River Cree Nation, flanked by the leaders of the provincial Liberal and Green parties, as well as the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, called a news conference to complain that the government is taking too much time to get the formal approval process going.

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