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Was east side misled by NDP government?

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Construction of an all-weather road on the east side of Manitoba was of concern to the UNESCO heritage committee.


Construction of an all-weather road on the east side of Manitoba was of concern to the UNESCO heritage committee.

The advisers to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, after assessing the Pimachiowin Aki proposal from Canada, are recommending deferral of the nomination pending receipt of additional information.

This is a somewhat unusual request, as nomination submissions are normally quite complete. If additional information is needed it is usually provided before the committee meets. In this case, additional information sought will need to satisfy the criteria set out in the World Heritage Convention.

If UNESCO should turn down the bid, or defer it and turn it down later, it will not be because of the aboriginal people and those amongst them who have worked so hard on the application. From all appearances, the idea of a World Heritage designation was used to justify the bewildering "beer parlour decision" by the Manitoba government to reroute Bipole III down the west side. Subsequently, $10 million was allocated to pursue the inscription, with strong involvement at the community level.

Some background on the World Heritage committee and its processes may help explain the uncertainty surrounding this proposal.

The United Nations decided in the 1970s to establish a committee to identify both natural and cultural sites of "outstanding universal value" and inscribe them on a world heritage list. Sites listed are not just in a group of the best: they would be the ones on the gold medal podium in an Olympic competition. That means there may well be many other very good sites, but only the "outstanding" one is on the world heritage list.

The convention that established this committee included the following: "State members of the committee shall choose as their representative persons qualified in the field of the cultural or natural heritage." This means that the decision-makers (committee members) are experts trained and experienced in judging cultural and natural heritage proposals based on facts and analysis in the context of established criteria.

The committee is provided expert advice by various international organizations, most specifically the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Many early submissions to the committee included obvious choices: Kluane, Nahanni, the Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal and Stonehenge being examples. Others have been proposed as a result of new awareness of the site: The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, also known for its impressive "Terra Cotta Warriors" being an example.

The Pimachiowin Aki nomination fits closer to this latter group as it consists of a recent compilation of information previously known by people mainly within the area. In the case of cultural aspects of the east side, residents have always had a close connection to the land, but then, this is not necessarily unique. There are many areas throughout the world where aboriginal peoples continue to live in close association with the lands and resources they hold dear, as did their ancestors.

The ICOMOS report essentially notes that despite two recent responses received providing additional information requested concerning the nomination, they remain concerned that the comparative analysis remains inadequate; that the conditions of integrity and authenticity have been met but are highly vulnerable. These must be addressed to satisfy the criterion regarding universal value. At this point the comparative analysis suggests that there are many other similar areas and that the five east side First Nations do not want to single themselves out as being exceptional. Their conclusion is that criterion (iii) has "not been justified at this stage," hence the suggested deferral.

The IUCN report finds that the boreal forest of the east side is an important representation of boreal forest, but not the best in the world. In particular, there already are many areas of boreal forest within existing designated sites. Narrowing the category down to only boreal shield areas, there still remain other sites that better represent this particular eco-region. Consequently, the case for the proposed area "is not compelling, and does not meet criterion ix, but that further reflection is required following clarification of the possible basis for inscription under cultural criteria."

Both the IUCN and ICOMOS expressed concerns about construction of an all-weather road through the proposed area. Although the merits of the road were recognized in terms of access due to climate change affecting winter roads, ecological and cultural impacts from construction and use were identified as significant: "none of the land use plans contained any strategies for mitigating the impacts of road construction."

ICOMOS stated: "road construction constitutes imminent change to the area," particularly cultural impacts from increased tourist access.

Given this, the proponent has several options to consider.

1. The proposal could be withdrawn, and the substantial information bank developed used to continue to build cultural and spiritual awareness and improve their communities from the inside out. Given the spiritual value of being at peace within their environment, programs could be developed to offer courses to others who otherwise may never have a chance to experience spirituality of this sort.

2. Additional information could be provided as requested, respecting their principle that they are not "superior" to other aboriginal communities (excellence, or "ar�te" as viewed by ancient Greeks, is accomplished by becoming all they could be, rather than winning a competition with others).

3. The additional information could be prepared while concurrently taking steps to build improved knowledge at the community level as the result of the work to date. Further, plans could be made recognizing that residents are the ones who must take steps to protect their traditions and their natural inheritance, with or without World Heritage recognition.

There may well be solid arguments for further consideration after additional information is prepared. It must be remembered that committee members are required to be expert in their field. The intention is that this specialized information, not political bluff and bluster, is what will drive the ultimate decision.

The elephant in the room may be the Manitoba government. The original idea for World Heritage recognition appears to have come from the NDP government. One might wonder whether the sole objective was to prevent Bipole III from running down some portion of the east side due to some hidden agenda currying favour from powerful U.S. environmental activists.

Was the implied fundamental concern about the cultural values of the First Nations and the boreal resources on which they place spiritual values demonstrated through oral traditions, petroglyphs and sacred sites a front for something else?

Hopefully, this was not the case, but the government's initial argument for the shift of Bipole III to the west side was the overriding risk to World Heritage inscription. Over the years, however, the rationale has bounced around amongst several excuses, each failing to get traction.

The First Nations involved have been actively seeking ways to improve their lives for more than 40 years. These activities have involved hundreds if not thousands of meetings and one-on-one discussions through time. Evidence developed for this nomination points to the substantial database on both natural and cultural resources that has evolved through this process. The communities, regardless of the outcome of the UNESCO deliberations, deserve recognition for their efforts, and the process of has already provided a strong cultural basis for moving forward, with or without World Heritage recognition.

Bipole III may actually be unnecessary over the next decade or more, and ultimately depend on whether any more additional dams on the Nelson are needed in light of more efficient alternatives for producing electrical power, particularly within the U.S. market. The competition is fierce, and will become more so as new technologies become viable in the near future. Cleaner coal technologies may not be that far away in time, and certainly not far away geographically. Natural gas is expected to be available at low cost for many decades, and other newer energy sources are on the horizon. Conservation measures will continue to dampen demand for energy.

Investments not expected to produce energy for 10 years or more while under construction are wandering into very high-risk fields. Individual investors make their decisions based on how much risk they are prepared to take, and know the odds when making that decision. Evidence suggests that the Manitoba government is out of its depth to be making "business decisions" on long-term, high-risk undertakings.

About five years ago, I attended a meeting with Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch and several MKO staff. After they described the approach for World Heritage consideration of an area east of Lake Winnipeg, I indicated to the group that it would be a "hard sell." Five years later, the proposal remains a "hard sell."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A17

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