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Muskeg, a type of low-lying wetland, in an area near Kashechewan, Ont., in an undated handout photo.HO/The Canadian Press

A step toward officially protecting a proposed national marine conservation area, located in the western James Bay and southwestern Hudson Bay regions, was announced on Wednesday.

Parks Canada says the area, which spans 86,000-square-kilometres, has been home to Omushkego Cree for millennia. The agency says it contains a wealth of biodiversity including one of the largest beluga populations in the country and a threatened population of polar bears. It is also a global hotspot for breeding and migrating water birds.

The proposed marine area is adjacent to one of the largest stocks of carbon-rich peatlands in the world, which is referred to as the “breathing lands” by elders.

The completion of a feasibility assessment for a proposed conservative area was unveiled Wednesday in Kashechewan, Ont., by Grand Chief Leo Friday of the Mushkegowuk Council and Adam van Koeverden, the parliamentary secretary to Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. Mr. Guilbeault is also responsible for Parks Canada.

The feasibility assessment followed a memorandum of understanding signed in August, 2021, between the federal government and the Mushkegowuk Council.

“It is a very large, very ecologically diverse area that we’re working with our Indigenous partners, and other partners, to conserve and protect for generations and generations to come,” said Mr. Guilbeault in an interview.

There are many purposes of conservation areas, including to protect important and symbolic biodiversity in Canada, he added.

National marine conservation areas are protected areas established and managed by Parks Canada.

“More and more, we’re also looking at it from the lens of reconciliation and what those sites mean, and those areas mean, culturally, historically, even spiritually, for Indigenous peoples in Canada,” Mr. Guilbeault said, adding that the government is working with Indigenous peoples to ensure they are at the table as decision-makers for new conservation areas. “It is important both from an environmental perspective but also from a reconciliation perspective.”

Mr. Friday said treaty rights lay out that First Nations should be stewards of traditional lands and waters.

“This is a welcome step toward fulfilling that promise,” he said.

The Omushkego say traditional territories cover nearly a third of Ontario, including a large portion of southwestern Hudson Bay and western James Bay and their islands.

There are steps that remain in the process to establish a marine conservation area, including negotiations on the agreement and the establishment of the protected area itself.

Mr. Guilbeault said he is hopeful that this can be completed as quickly as possible but said it is important to do it the right way.

Caroline Macintosh, the executive director for protected areas establishment with Parks Canada, said Wednesday’s announcement is a step forward to support global protection of lands and waters.

Canada has committed to conserve 25 per cent of land and inland waters and 25 per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2025, working toward 30 per cent by 2030.

“Conservation is so important given all of the crises that we’re facing at an environmental level,” she said.

Ms. Macintosh said that protection of the area would contribute 1.5 per cent to the federal government’s 2030 target, adding this is significant for a single project.

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