Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A gem to preserve, UNESCO or no

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It is true the NDP could have done a better job of handling the UNESCO proposal, but not for the reasons stated in your editorial NDP's UNESCO folly, Jan. 16. There is much confusion about the Pimachiowin Aki project (its proper name) as interested parties are putting their own spin on the issue in pursuit of separate agendas.

First, it needs to be said Pimachiowin Aki is an extremely worthwhile project in its own right, irrespective of whether it ever gets UNESCO's seal of approval.

It seeks to protect over 33,400 square kilometres straddling the Manitoba-Ontario border, a protection that would apply not only to the land but to the living culture of the peoples who have inhabited this land for centuries. It seeks to achieve ecological protection while at the same time providing a good living for the First Nations people who inhabit the land. Five First Nations are involved in the project -- four from Manitoba and one from Ontario. It is a remarkable example of a co-operative relationship between governments and First Nations.

Many seemed surprised last June when the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO decided to postpone a decision on designation for a year. They should not have been. Dealing with UNESCO is not as straightforward as one might think -- it's not just a matter of filling out the proper forms and preparing a substantial brief based on UNESCO's guidelines. UNESCO receives more applications for World Heritage status than it is prepared to grant. The criteria are rigorous and the competition is stiff.

And, even though politics is not supposed to play a role, I know from first-hand experience it does. As fate would have it, I was Canada's representative on the UNESCO executive board in the spring of 1970 when the World Heritage program first came up for discussion. From that experience, I knew Pimachiowin Aki was going to be a tough sell.

In Manitoba, the project has been politicized from the get-go, most notably when the provincial government used the proposed UNESCO designation as a reason to route the Bipole III transmission line on the west side of the province. That strained credibility from the start, but oddly enough, the government's PR was taken at face value by both supporters and opponents of the project.

There is no way the NDP would spend an extra $1 billion just to give an indirect, perhaps unnecessary, boost to the UNESCO project while at the same time promoting the construction of a much more damaging road up the east side.

No, Pimachiowin Aki was used as a fig leaf to cover up other reasons for the west side Bipole III routing.

There may well be sound reasons for this routing (including the near-impossibility of reaching a viable agreement within a reasonable time with up to 16 very divided First Nations on the east side) but the UNESCO bid is not one of them. The appeasement of American environmental lobbies is also a red herring. These groups' involvement was in support of, and at the request of, one or more east-side First Nations. If the government were to conclude satisfactory agreements with those First Nations, their American allies would no longer be a threat.

The province seems to have stopped making the linkage between Bipole III and the heritage site, but it still continues to refer to Pimachiowin Aki as the "proposed UNESCO World Heritage project." So does the Free Press and, well, just about everyone else. Technically, that journalistic shorthand is correct, but it gives the impression that UNESCO designation is the be-all and end-all, the sole reason money is being expended on the project.

What happens if UNESCO turns it down, as indeed it may? There doesn't seem to be a plan B. This project should proceed regardless of UNESCO's decision. If it does ultimately get UNESCO's seal of approval, that will be icing on the cake.

At this stage of the game there is only one thing to do and that is to go back to the drawing board to meet UNESCO's concerns. This appears to be what the province is attempting to do. But please stop talking about the UNESCO designation as the ultimate and only objective. The ultimate objective is, and should have been from the start, the protection of the last best piece of intact boreal forest in the country and the cultural and economic development of the people who inhabit that land and live in harmony with it.


Roger Turenne was deputy permanent delegate of Canada to UNESCO, 1969-1971.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 0

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