Comment: By Don Sullivan
December 8, 2008 – The third term Doer government has taken a firm stand on its election commitments to move forward with the creation of a United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and provide for significant protection measures to Manitoba’s East side of Lake Winnipeg.
While Quebec and Ontario have been praised for making vague commitments to protect the boreal forest in their province, the Manitoba government in the last week has taken concrete legislative steps to do what the other two provinces have merely talked about doing.
The first move came early this year when the Doer government, after winning a unprecedented third term, announced that it would not allow Manitoba Hydro to proceeds with its preferred option to construct BiPole III, a high voltage Direct Current Transmission Line down the East side of Lake Winnipeg.
The government of Manitoba recently took further steps by making two very significant announcements that will change the way business is done in Manitoba’s boreal forest.
First, Manitoba’s Minister of Conservation, announced and introduced amendments to the Forestry Act that would no longer allow logging in Manitoba’s Provincial Parks. This came as very welcome news sixteen years after environmentalists and the governments own environmental review board, the Clean Environment Commission, in 1992 recommended to the government of the day that there should no longer be clear cutting in Provincial Parks.
The recent announcement will add additional protection measures to Nopiming, Grass River, Clear Lake and the Whiteshell Provincial Parks. The only exception will be that Duck Mountain Provincial Park will see continued logging until a deal can be worked out with the Little Loggers Association and Louisiana Pacific.
While some would have liked to have seen the Province go a step further with a ban on mining in Provincial Parks, this is nonetheless a significant move for the provincial government.
Second, and to the surprise of many, the good news did not stop there. On December 1st the government of Manitoba introduced a historic land use planning Bill in the legislature.
Bill 6 appropriately named THE EAST SIDE TRADITIONAL LANDS PLANNING AND SPECIAL PROTECTED AREAS ACT will legislatively give First Nations on the East side of Lake Winnipeg the ability to better manage, plan, control and protect the natural resources in their traditional territories. This is a very significant first for Canada.
Manitoba must be commended for being the first province in Canada to take legislative steps to catch up with recent Canadian court rulings recognizing constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.
Bill 6 sets up a mechanism whereby First Nations communities on the East side of Lake Winnipeg Planning area can enter into a formal government-to-government land use planning exercise that will have legal standing. In short, the Act would enable First Nations to develop land-use plans, to provide interim and permanent legal protection of traditional lands and would ensure any new development activities undertaken by third parties in a First Nations traditional land-use area will be conducted in collaboration with First Nations. This certainly meets one of the litmus test of meaningful and bonafide consultation that the courts have come to define with respect to Aboriginal and Treaty rights.
Two important questions, related to Bill 6, need to be addressed in the very near future, if they have not already been, if this Act is to have any force and effect. First, does the government of Manitoba have the internal infrastructure and resources to implement this significant piece of legislation?
And secondly, and more importantly, do the First Nations communities who choose to exercise their right under this new Bill have the necessary resources, skills and tools at their disposal to plan as equals in this new co-operative relationship with the government of Manitoba and if not how will it be overcome?
Bill 6 once it receives royal assent will also send a clear signal to the UNESCO, the world body that bestows World Heritage Site designation, that Manitoba is serious about its commitment to pursue UNESCO World Heritage designation for a 4.3 million hectare parcel of land on the East side of Lake Winnipeg.
The value of the ecosystems services that this sensitive ecological area provides was recently pegged at around a 130 million dollars a year according to a recently released report undertaken by the International Institute for Sustainable Development for Pimachiowin Aki, a not-for-profit corporation set-up by the First Nations communities whose traditional territory would encompass most of the proposed World Heritage Site. This assessment did not however account for the potential economic spin-off associated with tourism and other related community economic development opportunities that may arise as a result of UNESCO World Heritage Site Designation, which when compared to other World Heritage Site could be substantial.
Just in time for the festive season, these recent announcements by the government of Manitoba are truly gifts that will keep on giving for generations to come. The amendments to the Forestry Act and introduction of Bill 6 will most certainly create a lasting legacy that this government can be proud of.
Don Sullivan is a writer, an award winning photographer and recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal