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Why you should visit one of Canada’s UNESCO heritage sites

Mistaken Point, Nfld., is seeking World Heritage Site status for its rare, ancient fossils.

Barrett & Mackay Photography

Windswept and rocky, buffeted by the waves of the icy North Atlantic Ocean and set amidst the solitude of the southeastern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, Mistaken Point can seem like a very forlorn place. Hours from St. John's and accessible only by gravel road – and on foot, once you're there – its name alludes to the days before modern navigation when sailors, confused by a prevailing fog, often mistook this 5.7-kilometre spit of land for Cape Race Harbour, with disastrous results. But, supported by the province and striding forth on the world stage, this desolate place has hopes of becoming the next big tourist destination in Canada.

What those old sailors didn't know – what nobody knew until 1967 – is that Mistaken Point is also home to some of the oldest fossils on Earth. Set in stone, the fossils of ancient, seaborne creatures date from the Ediacaran period, as far back as 575 million years. Discovered by a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the fossils are extremely rare, and very well preserved, having been covered and kept in pristine condition by multiple layers of volcanic ash. Accordingly, the province has applied to have Mistaken Point – already a provincial ecological reserve – declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But the road here has been a hard one. "It's a long and involved process. Mistaken Point has been on Canada's tentative list for World Heritage Sites since 2004," observes Ed Kirby, a marketing specialist with Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism.

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Past applications have included thousands of pages of data and research, and the province has reportedly already spent about $600,000 on the bid. Each application must clear a difficult set of hurdles – archaeologists and anthropologists help write the lengthy paperwork, which is submitted to UNESCO, a Paris-based arm of the United Nations (the acronym stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Following a potential back-and-forth to ensure all the information has been supplied, a team of UNESCO experts is dispatched to the site to see it for themselves. They submit their own report – recommending it, or not. Mistaken Point and its supporters will find out their fate next year, when member nations will vote on the proposal at an annual UNESCO meeting.

And while it can seem onerous, Denis Ricard, secretary general of the Quebec City-based Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC), says it's well worth it for destinations that qualify. "The original intention was to protect heritage, but the first impact is on tourism. Go to any guide book and they'll tell you right away, it's confirmation of the value," observes Ricard.

The OWHC was founded in the early 1990s, after Quebec City was added in 1985 to what was, at the time, a very short list of UNESCO World Heritage Cities. But Ricard warns that membership in this elite club isn't permanent. He cites the example of Dresden, Germany, which two years ago was removed from the list after building a new bridge in its historic district. He notes that "outstanding universal value," or OUV, is the key to getting (and keeping) such status, and a UNESCO city or site must be very careful not to violate that. By introducing a brand-new element into a historic environment, the bridge in Dresden destroyed its OUV.

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A few of Canada's most remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Canada has 17 sites and cities that enjoy UNESCO status, divided almost evenly between cultural and natural locations. Here are a few of them.

Quebec City

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Quebec's Old City is a place apart, unlike any other settlement in Canada, a cluster of cobblestone and European charm, where horse-drawn carriages clip-clop past 17th century churches and excellent fondue seems available on every corner. But melted cheese alone isn't enough to get you onto the UNESCO list. The Old City was admitted in 1985 based on two criteria: that it presented a coherent, fortified colonial town and the most complete north of Mexico, and that, as the former capital of New France, it illustrates one of the major stages in the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. OWHC chief Denis Ricard notes that Quebec City has also long taken a leading role in defining and sustaining UNESCO World Heritage Cities – a list that now stands at 268, according to Ricard – and that it's extremely unlikely they will ever lose their status. "If you try and touch the World Heritage part, there would be an uproar in the city. The citizens are very aware."

Tumbler Ridge (British Columbia)

Set deep in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain foothills of northeastern B.C., struggling coal mining town Tumbler Ridge last year was designated the second and newest UNESCO Geopark in Canada, and the first in the western half of North America. The organization recognized the unique tectonic features in the area, as well as a bounty of paleontological highlights, including the tracks of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and some of the oldest birds in the world. "The Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in Tumbler Ridge is a major attraction, while a network of hiking trails leads to numerous geosites, including spectacular waterfalls, dinosaur tracks, mountain summits, sedimentary rock formations, caves and canyons," UNESCO noted.

Kluane National Park (Yukon)

Home to soaring mountains – including Canada's highest – and a truly unique ecosystem, Kluane and its neighbouring parks (in British Columbia and Alaska) were admitted onto the UNESCO list in 1979, making it one of the first in Canada to be recognized on its natural merits. "It's the largest internationally protected area in the world," observes Brent Liddle, Kluane's former chief park interpreter. UNESCO has noted a number of important factors for Kluane's admission, including exceptional natural beauty (calving glaciers that break off chunks, snow-capped mountains, deep river canyons), glacial and tectonic activity (including some of the largest and longest glaciers in the world) and a special habitat for wildlife.

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