Will There be a New UNESCO Site in Manitoba? – A Feature Interview with Conservationist Don Sullivan

Posted on April 6th, 2010

By Ainslie Cruickshank

Source: Canadian Geographic

“Finding ways to reconnect with the natural world is profoundly important to me in an age where the very thing we depend on to exist — nature — has seemingly been forgotten.
-Don Sullivan

For 25 years Don Sullivan has been visiting the Eastside of Lake Winnipeg. As the former president of the Boreal Forest Network (BFN), he worked to protect it, and he’s still pushing to preserve it today as a special advisor for Manitoba Conservation.

In 2008, he decided to combine his interests in photography and the area by creating Landscapes from Manidoo Abi, a beautiful coffee table book featuring photos from the forest to raise awareness about the movement to have part of it designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Coordinated by a group called Pimachiowin Aki, creation of a proposal to have a 4.3 million hectare section of the East Side of Lake Winnipeg preserved is underway. The group plans to complete the nomination package by 2011.

Recently, Canadian Geographic spoke with Sullivan about his book and the reasons behind the push to protect this part of the boreal forest.

CG: Why did you decide to link your interests in photography and conservationism?

DS: Photography is an interesting tool to undertake advocacy. I think it’s really important for people to experience these things first hand. Of course, it’s extremely difficult for people to get an idea of what an area is, if all they do is read about it or hear some environmental group complaining about it. The only other way is through photography or video. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ can’t be a more accurate statement in my mind. When people look at a beautiful picture of the region, they go, ‘oh wow that’s really nice, what a beautiful picture,’ and that’s the entry point for you to discuss the region and why it’s important.

Can you tell me about the process of creating the book?

In 2008, I went out and just took pictures, I captured all four seasons within a 365-day span. I’ve been going out to the forest for so long I knew exactly where the good spots to shoot were. It was unique in that all the pictures were shot over one year, documenting one full seasonal cycle. Summer, spring, winter and fall.

Why did you decide to do this project now?

Well, there’s been a lot of interest in the East Side of Lake Winnipeg for a number of years, and a lot of attention regionally, nationally and internationally. The one piece I thought was missing in all of this is what the area looks like. The book is a good tool to engage people who would support the issue.

What inspired the book’s title?

For many of the Ojibwa people, that area is culturally and spiritually significant. If you put the words Manidoo Abi together, it pretty well says Manitoba. For the Ojibwa, Manidoo Abi is where the creator sits. I work with many First Nations elders in the region. So I approached them and asked if the title was appropriate. They all agreed.

What would it mean for the area to be designated a world heritage site?

Given that the area is nestled in what has been identified as one of the last remaining intact boreal forests in the world, it would probably mean more and better management of that ecosystem. I think, ultimately, it will mean that the First Nations who are involved in the process of nominating the area as a UNESCO site will be involved up front and will be better able to manage, plan, control and protect these resources in their traditional territories.

Why do you think the area deserves World Heritage Site status?

There are a number of reasons, but the ones that really count are outstanding universal values, both in terms of culture and heritage. Off the top of my head we’ve got the Bloodvein River, which is already designated a Canadian Heritage River. There have been some reports, certainly from the Canadian Boreal Initiative, that have identified this region as the single largest intact forest left in the world. Also, that particular area has a high storage of carbon content; it’s a very important region in terms of being a carbon sink.

What are some of your favorite things about the area?

It’s relatively untouched by large-scale resource development activities. It has many rivers and lakes and is fairly inaccessible to the average person. It’s appealing that not everyone can jump in their car and get there easily. You have to work to get in there, but it’s spectacular and beautiful. There’s an abundance of wildlife, it’s home to two threatened midland caribou herds.

Tell me about some of your most memorable experiences in the area?

For a few days, Louis Young, who was then Chief of Bloodvein, and I travelled down the Bloodvein River with David Anderson who was Federal Minister of the Environment at the time. We shot some white water rapids and caught some fish. I’ve basically traversed the area by a motorboat, canoe, snowmobile, and automobile. I’ve been in to a lot of places in the area and each one offers a unique experience.