Transmission corridor or World Heritage site?

June 7, 2011

BLOODVEIN RIVER, MANITOBA—Rob Whaley and his friends just discovered something about one of Canada’s most pristine wilderness areas: just when you get away from it all, you can’t, because a provincial premier and 38 other people might drop in.

That’s what Whaley, a Huntsville, Ont., family doctor, found out as he and his four-canoe expedition enjoyed the austere, rugged beauty of this roiling river near the Manitoba-Ontario border.

Things couldn’t have been more peaceful and isolated, when suddenly seven motorboats pulled up, bearing Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger along with two of his top cabinet ministers, aboriginal leaders, environmental scientists, international philanthropists and media.

“We hadn’t seen anybody for eight days, and now this,” joked Whaley, who organized the journey with friends from Huntsville, Flesherton and Markdale.

While the canoeists’ objective was relaxation, there was urgency to the premier’s two-day visit.

This river is part of a vast area called Pimachiowin Aki, or The Land that Gives Life. The Manitoba government, together with Ontario, five First Nations and with support from Ottawa, is ramping up efforts to have the area, the size of Denmark, designated by the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site.

Gaining UNESCO designation is not a slam dunk, and it involves hurdles and challenges here in Canada as well as at the UN agency’s headquarters in Paris. Manitoba’s opposition Progressive Conservatives have vowed to locate a huge transmission line right through the nominated area — a move that supporters of the UNESCO bid say would undermine the case completely.

“We’re talking about the life-support systems of a planet — how can that possibly be a political issue?” said David Suzuki, Canada’s best-known environmentalist, who flew into Winnipeg to meet about Pimachiowin Aki. “If you put electrical wires through, you don’t have an intact forest.”

The UNESCO bid process began nearly a decade ago, yet today it’s drawing controversy in Manitoba and minimal public attention in Ontario. With provincial elections in both provinces this fall (Manitobans go to the polls two days before Ontario’s Oct. 6 vote), there’s a scramble to galvanize support, raise funds and educate the public about the bid.

The Manitoba and Ontario governments point out that the potential UNESCO site would be one of the biggest among nearly 900 around the world, only the second heritage site in Ontario (the other is the Rideau Canal) and one of the largest intact areas of boreal forest in the world. Combined with a buffer zone, it’s more than 43,000 square kilometres.

The people of Pimachiowin Aki, who come from five First Nations in both provinces, are as much a part of the UNESCO bid as the land, water and trees. They trace their ancestral presence in the territory back some 6,000 years. There are significant rock paintings in the area, many of the boundaries derive from traditional traplines, and the people in the area have one of the highest rates of indigenous language retention in the world.

UNESCO designation would be a signal to the world that this vast forest and its people enjoy a measure of protection against outside development and resource exploitation. The five First Nations supporting the bid (one in Ontario) came up with their own land-use plans as the basis for the proposal, and they see designation as a way to share the boreal and their traditions with the world without compromising them.

“I wasn’t always proud of my traditions, but today I am,” says Martina Young Fisher, also known as Blue Sky Eagle Moon, a traditional teacher who operates a lodge on the Bloodvein with her husband.

It will take up to 2014 for UNESCO to evaluate the Ontario-Manitoba bid, which will hinge on whether the UN body believes there is “Outstanding Universal Value” to this boreal forest.

Right now, “it’s the largest intact boreal forest on the planet,” says Faisal Moola, science director for the David Suzuki Foundation. The boreal is considered “the lungs of the Earth,” absorbing carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.

The question is, will it still be outstanding to UNESCO if there’s a giant power line running through this canoe tripper’s paradise?

Former Star reporter David Israelson is a Toronto writer and consultant.

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