A Basque whaling station that dates to the 1500s and a largely unspoiled expanse of boreal forest where five First Nations have existed for six millenniums are among the international sites being considered this week for coveted World Heritage designation.
Canadian officials are in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, hoping to convince UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee that the Red Bay National Historic Site in Labrador and the Pimachiowin Aki in Manitoba are worthy of joining the other 32 Canadian destinations that have previously been declared to be of exceptional natural or cultural worth.
The designation would bring world exposure and an intensified commitment for preservation. But the two bids are very different in their content as well as their prospects for success. The UNESCO committee is expected to make its decision this weekend.
Red Bay National Historic Site
Basque whalers were drawn to the Strait of Belle Isle off Labrador in the 16th century when whale oil fuelled lamps and was a prime component of soap.
Three Basque whaling galleons and four small whaling craft have been discovered offshore, making Red Bay one of the most important underwater archeological sites in the Americas.
A designation as a World Heritage site would say “that the story of the Basque Whaling in Red Bay is a story that should be protected and presented for all humanity,” said Trudy Walsh-Taylor, a senior official with Parks Canada who flew to Cambodia on Tuesday morning.
The Red Bay presentation to the UNESCO committee will explain that the arrival of the Basques in North America marked the beginning of the commercial whaling industry. Basque groups retain a cultural connection to the region to this day.
All aspects of whaling can be seen at the site, including the galleons that brought the Europeans to this side of the Atlantic, the chalupas that were the smaller ships deployed in the actual hunt, the rendering ovens, the barrel equipment and the detritus of everyday life, including cooking utensils, shelters and clothing.
Cindy Gibbons, the site manager, said the nomination focuses on the history of the site and its significance to the rest of humanity.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) has glowingly recommended that UNESCO designate Red Bay as a World Heritage site. “It was a much better recommendation than I could ever have hoped,” said Ms. Gibbons. “It brought home to me the fact that I think this is a special place, but so do a lot of other people.”
This is a vast area of boreal forest interspersed with free-flowing rivers, lakes and wetlands that is home to iconic Canadian animals including wolves, moose and woodland caribou.
It covers 33,400 square kilometres, 97 per cent of which remains unspoiled by human contact, and is home to five Anishinaabeg communities with populations that range between 500 and 2,000 people. Pictographs suggest their ancestors have lived in the area for 6,000 years.
The bid for World Heritage status is being made on both a natural and a cultural basis.
While the natural significance of the region cannot be denied – it is the largest network of connected protected areas in North America – ICOMOS has recommended that UNESCO defer its decision. That assessment was based, in part, on the Anishinaabeg’s refusal to state that their spiritual connection to the land is exceptional compared with that of other indigenous peoples around the world.
More than 50 indigenous cultures from different countries have written to UNESCO to back the Anishinaabeg in refusing to claim superiority. “We have always believed that we have no right to say we are better than anyone else,” said Sophia Rabliaskus, a Pimachiowin Aki bid spokesperson in a letter to the world body.
Mat Jacobsen, a conservation officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which supports the bid, said the committee is not bound by the ICOMOS recommendation. “It’s a controversial one,” said Mr. Jacobsen, but “I think it’s very much alive.”