Trust fund backs up UN heritage bid

October 14, 2009

The Doer government put its money where its mouth is Tuesday with a $10-million contribution to a new trust fund aimed at winning a United Nation’s world heritage status for a 40,000-square-kilometre area of forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

The fund will be managed by the Winnipeg Foundation and be used by First Nation communities within the area to support their bid to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate it a world heritage site, joining 890 natural, cultural and historic sites already on the list (

“Your kids are going to be happy we did this,” Premier Gary Doer said. “It won’t win us an election, but it’s good we did this.”

The event, Doer’s last as premier, is viewed by First Nations and supporters as a crucial stage in applying for the UNESCO designation. The Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage project is a joint effort by the Poplar River, Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations in Manitoba and the Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario. The bid presentation is scheduled for 2011.

Sophia Rabliauskas, a spokeswoman for the Pimachiowin Aki Corp., the non-profit group that is seeking the international recognition, said she hopes the provincial grant will spark other donations.

“People call and (ask), ‘How can we donate to this project?’ ” she said.

Canadian Boreal Initiative executive director Larry Innes said the fund shows there is financial and public support for the UNESCO application.

“We’re tickled pink,” he said. “This edges it up not just a notch, but several.”

Rick Frost, chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Foundation, said the fund could grow to $20 million in time, generating an annual income of about $1 million.

“There’s going to be a range of opportunities for others to contribute and based on what we’re seeing it looks like it could be a $20-million fund,” he said.

Other possible donors could include the federal and Ontario governments, as well as private donors and foundations.

Frost also said the foundation would manage the money, but the board that operates the site would decide how income from the fund is spent.

Doer compared the effort to winning a UN designation for the east side with the process in which many national parks in the U.S. were created.

“Everyone one of those was a fight, economic versus environment,” Doer said. “At the end of the day it’s good for the environment and it’s good for the economy.”

The protection of the boreal forest and the rivers that run through it is the main reason the Doer government opted to build a new hydro transmission line down the west side of the province rather than the shorter route on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

Opposition Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen called the government donation a “positive step” in helping to further the goal of establishing a UNESCO site.

The Conservatives have long argued that winning a designation would not be undermined by building a transmission line from northern hydroelectric dams down the east side of the lake.

The Doer government has pressured Manitoba Hydro to build a new transmission line down the west of the province at an additional cost of $450 million.

McFadyen said the United Nations has also recognized the Canadian Rockies, including Banff National Park, as a world heritage site, despite such development as four-lane highways, town sites, ski resorts and power transmission lines.

“I think provided that there is participation (from local communities), that UNESCO would look favourably upon a designation even with a (hydro) transmission corridor,” he said.

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Lay of the land

What’s UNESCO? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, an agency of the UN, was formed in 1945. Its purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture.

What’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site? An international organization was established through UNESCO to identify and protect cultural and physical sites that have universally outstanding value. So far, 15 such sites have been recognized in Canada, such as the Rocky Mountain Parks and Nova Scotia’s Old Town Lunenburg.

What’s being proposed here? The Manitoba and Ontario governments, along with four First Nations, have formed the Pimachiowin Aki Corp., to push for heritage site designation for a 40,000-square-kilometre area east of Lake Winnipeg.

What’s special about the area? It has exceptional ecological value with extensive undisturbed forests, lakes and wetlands and represents critical habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including woodland caribou, bald eagles and wolverines. It also represents an outstanding example of traditional aboriginal life based on a close and enduring relationship to the land. Archeological evidence shows it’s been inhabited by the Anishinabe people for more than 5,000 years.

How long will the nomination process take? Three to five years.

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