By Mia Rabson
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
POPLAR RIVER FIRST NATION — From the sky above this northern community, the towering evergreens coat the ground with a rich green sheen and the fast-flowing waters of the Poplar River sparkle royal blue.
It is, said Premier Gary Doer Friday, “the greatest undiscovered area anywhere in North America.”
And he travelled to Poplar River — 400 kilometres
northeast of Winnipeg — to tell residents here a re-elected NDP government will put the weight of legislation behind protecting the region from development, including a hydroelectric transmission line.
The Poplar-Nanowin Rivers Park Reserve — an 800,000 hectare area of boreal forest — has had interim protection since 1998. But Poplar River First Nation is seeking permanent protection, and Doer said if he is returned to the Premier’s office, that will happen.
He said the current legal designations protecting land in Manitoba are inadequate to ensure park reserve is maintained in its current form for generations to come. So new legislation — to be developed in consultation with the affected First Nations — will secure the land while still allowing for local economic development such as tourism. Doer said the area could be a major draw for international travellers, particularly once an all-weather road is completed.
But the increased protection for the land would mean a new Hydro transmission line could not be built down the east side of Lake Winnipeg. The debate over the line’s location has raged ever since the Doer government rejected a Hydro proposal to put the line on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
Manitoba Hydro is now putting together a study on the alternative locations on the west side of the lake.
Critics of that plan — including Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen — say it is costlier to build on the west side because it’s a longer route. They also maintain it would put the line too close to the existing one, which means both could go down simultaneously due to a major storm or sabotage.
But a transmission line, say the NDP and residents of Poplar River, would also spoil the area and certainly would prevent the reserve from receiving UNESCO world heritage status — putting it on the same exclusive list with the Great Barrier Reef, the Acropolis, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon.
World heritage sites are named to protect and preserve cultural and natural heritage buildings and sites around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.
There are 13 UNESCO heritage sites in Canada, including Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta and Old Town Lunenburg. None of the sites is in Manitoba.
Poplar River resident Sophia Rabliauskas, who just won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to protect the forest, thanked Doer on Friday for his pledge to protect the land.
“If we lose that land we don’t have a future,” she said.
She said since her community began taking the children back out onto the land and reuniting them with their heritage, the quality of life in Poplar River has improved.
“We have seen the transformation of our young people learning about our way of life,” said Rabliauskas. “That was almost lost.”
Doer also visited Berens River on Friday, pledging $3.5 million for a two-station dialysis centre to serve the 3,200 residents of Berens River, Bloodvein, Poplar River and Pauingassi first nations. It will help people suffering from diabetes-related kidney disease from the communities stay at home rather than having to move to Winnipeg so they can receive treatment several times a week.
There will be $860,000 in operating funding for the units, as well as for a full-time nurse whose job will include educating residents to prevent diabetes.