By Mary Agnes Welch
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
The Doer government introduced legislation Monday that paves the way for a world heritage site on the east side of Lake Winnipeg and effectively bans the construction of a power line through the boreal forest.
“This land is part of us,” said Sophia Rabliouskis, a Poplar River First Nation band member and the chief champion of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “It’s what’s shaped us and what’s helping to heal our communities.”
The bill, promised by Premier Gary Doer in the 2007 election, gives Poplar River and the 15 other bands on the east side unprecedented power to plan and manage their traditional lands that often extend thousands of square kilometres beyond their small reserves. No plan for a band’s land will be approved without the signatures of the province and the band’s chief.
“It’s all about a planning process that gives First Nations a seat at the table,” said Conservation Minister Stan Struthers. “For too many years, decisions were made far away behind closed doors.”
Each of the 16 bands on the east side of Lake Winnipeg is now working on plans, which will have the force of law and could shape development of the untouched forest for generations.
But it’s a process that could take years. Poplar River is the only First Nation that’s nearly done its plan and has just been waiting for the Doer government’s legislation to make it official. Other bands have barely begun.
While that’s happening, a vast swath of boreal forest the size of Belgium could get interim protection from development like logging, mining and power lines. Bands that want such protection must ask the province.
The bill effectively outlaws a massive hydro transmission line called BiPole III proposed for the east side. That’s because three bands — Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Poplar River — that sharply oppose the power line are now empowered to draft plans that are expected to outlaw such project on a vast strip of land between Lake Winnipeg and the Ontario border.
The Doer government has decreed that BiPole III won’t run down the east side anyway because it’s at odds with an application to the United Nations for world heritage status for the boreal forest.
But the legislation contains a failsafe for use in extreme circumstances. Cabinet can override the development plans if a project is in the public interest.
That gives the Doer government — and future governments — some latitude to maintain ultimate control over Crown land.
Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen said he supports the UNESCO designation, but said that shouldn’t preclude limited development like a power line.
The Tories have long argued that a power line down the east side is cheaper, faster to build and could provide some much-needed jobs and economic development for impoverished, remote reserves.
What happened Monday?
The province introduced legislation allowing bands to create their own land use and resource management plans along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. It’s a first in Canada.
What is a land use and resource management plan?
Think of it like a big map that lays out all the land a band has traditionally used for hunting, trapping and ceremonial events. That would include a reserve and often thousands of square kilometres around it. That map will specify what kinds of development — logging, roads, mining, eco-tourism lodges — can go on what parcels and what areas should remain totally untouched.
What does this mean for the area?
Lots. The power line is all but ruled out. Three key bands won’t be writing a power line into their plans. They will be favouring a UNESCO site, though. Legislation and development plans protecting the boreal forest from things like mining or clearcutting are key pieces of paperwork the United Nations wants to see when it makes its decision. The road is still a go because the bands that favour tough rules to preserve the boreal forest are OK with a road linking remote reserves to Winnipeg.