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Anishinaabe territory straddling Manitoba and Ontario named Canada’s first mixed UNESCO World Heritage site

UNESCO World Heritage Committee is declaring the Pimachiowin Aki boreal forest spanning the Manitoba-Ontario boundary as a World Heritage Site, recognizing the outstanding universal value of both its cultural and natural features.

Pimachiowin Aki Corporation

A vast region of boreal forest straddling the Manitoba and Ontario border has been named the first mixed cultural and natural UNESCO World Heritage site in Canada, a tribute to the area’s exceptional biological diversity as well as to the enduring presence of Indigenous people there.

After years of lobbying by local First Nations, and more than a decade of support from the governments of both provinces as well as the government of Canada, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization awarded the rare designation Sunday to Pimachiowin Aki.

“It has been a long time for us, it seems – at least 17 years of work went into it – and the communities have worked really hard to see this day, and to see the end results of this whole project,” said Sophia Rabliauskas, a Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson who was at the UNESCO meeting in Bahrain to hear the decision announced.

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“We can now devote all our efforts to preserving Pimachiowin Aki as a treasure for our people and the world,” Ms. Rabliauskas said.

Pimachiowin Aki, which means “the Land That Gives Life” in Anishinaabemowin, covers 29,040 square kilometres (almost the size of Vancouver Island) of mostly untouched wilderness and is home to one of the largest herds of caribou south of Hudson Bay, as well as many other species of mammals, birds, insects and fish.

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Poplar River

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Pauingassi

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Little Grand Rapids

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Bloodvein River

First Nation

Winnipeg

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

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MANITOBA

Poplar River

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Lake

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Pauingassi

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Bloodvein River

First Nation

Winnipeg

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

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MANITOBA

Poplar River

First Nation

Lake

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Pimachiowin Aki

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Pauingassi

First Nation

Little Grand Rapids

First Nation

Bloodvein River

First Nation

Winnipeg

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

The effort to have the region placed under the UNESCO World Heritage umbrella has been led by a partnership of four First Nations – Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi and Poplar River.

A World Heritage mixed designation is a declaration that an area is so important to the world, both culturally and ecologically, that it must be protected. There is another such site in Mexico, but none in the continental United States.

The preservation of Pimachiowin Aki will help Canada achieve its target under the international Convention on Biological Diversity to protect 17 per cent of the country’s land and fresh water by 2020. Currently, just 10.5 per cent has been protected and, to meet the commitment, Canada will have to conserve an additional area roughly the size of Saskatchewan.

The federal government, which has allocated $1.3-billion over five years for the protection of species at risk and the implementation of broad ecological recovery plans, says it intends for much of that conservation work to be done by Indigenous people.

William Young, a member of the Bloodvein First Nation who is co-chair of the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, said the UNESCO designation will give the First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg more power to manage and protect their traditional lands.

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“It won’t be just for the First Nations themselves,” Mr. Young said. “We want to share what we have with the whole world, we want to promote what we have with the whole world.”

The first application to the World Heritage Committee was submitted by Canada on behalf of Pimachiowin Aki in 2012. But that was deferred by the committee, which said it was unclear that the area is unique and requested more information.

A second submission was made in 2016. But, just before an announcement was to be made, the Pikangikum First Nation withdrew its support, saying it was concerned about errors in UNESCO’s evaluation report.

Catherine McKenna, the federal Environment Minister, said in a statement that, as Canada’s first mixed World Heritage site, Pimachiowin Aki reflects the country’s outstanding natural and cultural heritage, and the integral role of Indigenous peoples in caring for natural spaces.

“On this Canada Day,” Ms. McKenna said, “I am very proud to be able to showcase Pimachiowin Aki to the world.”

The World Heritage Committee then gave the Pimachiowin Aki Corp. up to three years to submit a new bid without the participation of Pikangikum, which it did in 2016.

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Now that the designation has been made official, the Pimachiowin Aki Corp. says other First Nations in the area may join the initiative if they wish to do so. The corporation has spent $5.6-million over the years on various projects, with 90 per cent of that money coming from the two provincial governments.

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