Huge stretch of Anishinaabe boreal forest deemed UNESCO world heritage site

MANAMA, Bahrain —Four Anishinaabe First Nations are celebrating after a 16 year fight to save 29,040-sq km of boreal forest along the Manitoba-Ontario boundary received World Heritage  designation Sunday in recognition of its pristine environment and connection with Indigenous culture.
Pimachiowin Aki — an Ojibwa phrase that means ‘the land that gives life’ — has been deemed a world heritage site by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. It’s the first time a Canadian site  has been recognized for both its natural and cultural characteristics.

 The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage Committee made the announcement at its meeting in Manama, Bahrain.

The relatively untouched boreal forest is 29,000 square kilometres –more than half the size of Nova Scotia — and is home to four Anishinaabe First Nations – Poplar River, Bloodvein River, Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids First Nations  that continue to practise traditional land use.

There are already more than 1,000 UNESCO world heritage sites around the globe, including Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta and the historic district of Quebec City.

The UNESCO designation is intended to ensure areas such as Pimachiowin Aki are protected from future development and to help boost tourism.  It also includes Atikaki and South Atikaki Provincial Parks in Manitoba, and Woodland Caribou Provincial Park and Eagle-Snowshoe Conservation Reserve in Ontario.

The Manitoba government has spent more than $15 million over the last 13 years to support the UNESCO bid, while Ontario has put up about $1 million.

This was the third time UNESCO considered a bid by Pimachiowin Aki.

It deferred the initial bid in 2013 when two UNESCO advisory groups said it was unclear what made the area unique and requested more information.

A second attempt was made in 2016. The bid was deferred again, this time because one of five First Nations communities originally involved in the project — Pikangikum in northwestern Ontario — pulled out.

A consultant’s report done for the non-profit group behind the bid has raised questions about how much tourism could be drawn to the remote, fly-in region. The report, by Marr Consulting, said the area could initially attract fewer than 1,000 visitors a year.

“Expectations must be managed to recognize that tourism will not likely generate either large numbers of visitors or large revenue for communities,” the report stated.

“It is an exceptional example of the cultural tradition of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan (keeping the land), which consists of honouring the gifts of the Creator, respecting all forms of life and maintaining harmonious relations with others,” the committee noted in its decision.

“We always knew that Pimachiowin Aki was special and would become a World Heritage Site, and that the challenges that delayed our previous nominations would be overcome,” said in a statement Sophia Rabliauskas, of Poplar River First Nation in Manitoba, who was at the UNESCO meeting to hear the decision announced.

“But it was such a wonderful feeling to hear the words today and know that we can now devote all our efforts to preserving Pimachiowin Aki as a treasure for our peoples and the world, and I thank the governments and all the others who have supported us though every step.”

“The decision today allows us to move ahead with our vision for Pimachiowin Aki as a place celebrated for its cultural and natural values, to sustain and support our heritage, and create benefits within and beyond our communities,” said in a statement William Young of Bloodvein First Nation, co-chair of the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation.

He said the corporation will focus on growing  the existing Pimachiowin Aki endowment fund to ensure  long term financial sustainability. He said  in the works are programmes to safeguard cultural heritage, conserve and understand ecosystems and species, support sustainable economies and community-based initiatives and, provide for monitoring and public education incuding an Indigenous Lands Guardian program.

Add Your Voice

Is there more to this story? We'd like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Contribute your voice on our contribute page.