#61: Saving the Land that Gives Life
By Alex Shoumatoff
Photos © Don Sullivan
A few months ago, I got a call inviting me on a tour of a proposed UNESCO World Heritage in Manitoba. The hosts – the Province of Manitoba and the corporation leading the UNESCO bid, Pimachiowin Aki - took the risk of inviting a range of journalists on the trip without knowing how or what they might report. Some of the media had never been to the boreal forest, but I had visited this spectacular boreal wilderness on the east of Lake Winnipeg back in 2006. At that time I saw the terrible impacts of the existing hydro dams on the Nelson River on the wildlife and the Cree of Cross Lake and had written an article about it for Onearth, the magazine of the New-York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which had just declared the pristine east side of the lake one of its Biogems, "the heart of the boreal," deserving of total, untouchable, permanent protection. This article is posted as Dispatch #27 : Manitoba's Many Headed-Hydro. It lays out the situation as of five years ago, and gives you a sense of what paddling through this incredibly pure and vibrant forest wilderness is like.
At that point Manitoba Hydro was applying to build three new dams on the Nelson River and to run a transmission line down the east side of the lake, right through the homelands of five of Manitoba's Ojibwe first nations, which were in the process of jointly applying for World Heritage designation. The transmission line would have compromised the intactness of the wilderness and jeopardized the chances of getting the designation, and possibly affected the migratory patterns of the last big herds of woodland caribou, and made them sitting ducks for wolves as they crossed the hundred-yard, 800-km, swath the transmission line would be making. My story, published in 2006, I was told, had played a role, and more importantly a comprehensive 2007 study called the Farlinger Report, in persuading Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government of the wisdom of running Bipole III, as the transmission line was called, down the west side of the lake-- a longer, ostensibly more expensive route through more developed lands, much of it farmland, that would disturb less of the forest and would avoid the long, costly battle with the Ojibwe and the environmental groups supporting them that the east-side route was certain to provoke. I had visited the Ojibwe nation of Poplar River, whose homeland was and still is, in contrast with damn-devastated Cross Lake, untouched and breathtaking in its purity and majesty, and that fall I had returned to take an eight-day canoe trip down the Bloodvein River (also described in that Dispatch), in which we saw nothing human apart from our own expedition. I have visited many World Heritage sites around the world over the years, most recently western Thailand's extraordinary Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Khai Khaeng wildlife sanctuary complex on the Myanmar (Burma) border last November, and have spent months in the rain forests of the Amazon and Central Africa, and it was clear that Pimachiowin Aki, "The Land That Gives Life," as the Objibwe call their wilderness homeland, is a magical, precious, world class ecological and cultural complex of "universal value," the main criterion for a World Heritage site. The last I heard the battle over the route of Bipole III had been won and the arduous application process was going well.
But now, I learned, there is a new threat. The NDP, the New Democratic Party, has won the last three elections in Manitoba and is doing a great job running the province, and is completely behind Pimachiowin Aki's World Heritage bid and the west-side route for Bipole III, but Hugh McFadyen, a Progressive Conservative and the official leader of the opposition in Manitoba, is running for Premier in the elections this October, and with the Conservatives on the ascendant throughout the country, he could win, and he is promising, if elected, to reverse the west-side decision and run Bipole III down the east side, thus, he claims, saving Manitoba's taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. So I accepted this invitation to tour the east side with a number of influential people who understand what is at stake, among them David Suzuki, Canada's iconic environmentalist, and some of the top people in the MacArthur Foundation, which supports aboriginal efforts to protect their way of life and their environment. Obviously we can't let short-term ideological/business interests ruin this extraordinary parallel universe that is vital for us all. As if these aboriginal people, who are still recovering from the horror of the 140-year residential-school experience, haven't been violated enough. On top of which, as I would discover, the numbers that McFadyen is throwing are highly questionable.
Progressive conservative-- there's one for the dictionary of oxymorons. There is unfortunately nothing about McFadyen that is remotely progressive. He is one of those all too numerous myopic North Americans who just doesn't get it. He doesn't get that the boreal is the largest intact forest left on the planet, and a more important sink for atmospheric carbon than the Amazon or central African forests, and that Pimachiowin Aki is the wildest, most untouched part of it. That a World Heritage site would bring prestige and tourist dollars to the province. That running the Bipole down the east side is not the right thing to do-- morally, ecologically, or even in the long run financially. If Mr, McFadyen really wants to establish some progressive cred., he should progress out of trying to sabotage this crucial designation for this exceptional wilderness. He is setting himself up, in the eyes of future generations to go down as one of the bad guys. This whole mindset needs to be retired, but sadly it is taking over North America, so we have a fight on our hands.
39 smart, interesting, and delightful people assembled in Winnipeg for the tour on May 25 and got a once in a lifetime blast of Pimachiowin Aki over the next two days. They included conservationists, scientists, foundation people, dignitaries including Manitoba's Premier Greg Selinger, ,Manitoba's Conservation Minister Bill Blaikie, and Eric Robinson, the Minister responsible for Northern and Aboriginal Affairs for the province; a film-maker who is making a documentary the intelligence of trees, and a seriously knowledgeable ornithologist and crack birder. Many of the participants are involved in various aspects of the project, but this was the first time they had actually visited the proposed site. The softspoken Sophia Rabliuskas of Poplar River, who had won the Goldman Award since I had last seen her, is the community coordinator and spokesperson for the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project. Pimachiowin Aki means "The Land That Gives Life". Its total area is 43,000 square miles -- the size of Denmark. The 150-page application for the prestigious UNESCO designation will be submitted to the government of Canada in September of 2011, and the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature will assess the nomination document for its completeness and readiness to submit to the World Heritage Committee, whose approval usually takes eleven or so months. Once the application process has been embarked on, I was told, this basically means that the designation is going to be approved, although the application can be sent back for further information.
Two recent developments bode well for Bipole III not going down the east side and ruining Pimachiowin Aki's chances for UNESCO designation. The NDP has done surprisingly well at managing Manitoba's economy through the recent global economic meltdown. So the chances of Selinger being reelected are good, because the province is thriving economically, and you don't want to fix something that isn't broken, as one Winnepegger on the tour put it. And the NDP is on a roll, having supplanted the Liberal Party as the official opposition and become the second-most represented party and the official opposition in Ottawa for the first time. But you never know what any electorate is going to do, as the federal NDP's unprecedented and completely unexpected sweep of Quebec demonstrates. As they say, you can't lead a horse to water, the Winnepegger reminded me.
Secondly, Poplar River First Nation has just been given official status for their traditional lands by the province of Manitoba, affording it an additional level of protection. No outside development can happen on and no transmission lines can be rammed through its magical 3500 ancestral acres. This status would have to be revoked, as well as Manitoba Hydro's decision to go down the west side of the lake with its Bipole. Even if McFadyen were to win the election in October, the legal maneuvers available to delay his bid to revoke Poplar River's land protection designation and reverse the Bipole decision until the World Heritage status is granted, whereupon the Land That Gives Life will be home free, would make it virtually impossible for him to fulfill his campaign promise, which as I told the Winnipeg Free Press, has about as much legs as the "birther" cornerstone of Donald Trump's asinine presidential nomination bid. But it's a long time till October, and anything can happen in politics. It ain't over till it's over, so the people who want the World Heritage site have to be vigilant and have their lawyers lined up and their legal ducks in a row. Later this year I may be writing about the Serengeti, a World Heritage Site through which the powers that be in Kenya and Tanzania and China are trying to run a major highway. Here's a story about this equally important battle : http://www.africageographic.com/blogs/?p=770
McFadyen, appealing to the Scottish part of the Manitoban personality constellation that hates to part with money, as a Winnipegger quipped, has recently said that the east side route will cost every Manitoba family $11,000 in additional taxes, while the west side route will cost them $13.68. But how real is this ? Either way, Manitoba is going to have to put in a new converter, which will cost around one and a half billion dollars. This is the big expense. The difference of a few hundred miles of transmission line amount to a few hundred million. What McFadyen doesn't say is that the cost of Bipole III will be amortized for 60 years, so the actual cost of the east side route to each Manitoban family will come to only $3 a year. So, McFadyen is playing a numbers game, and if you want to see his reasoning, see this Winnipeg Free Press article.
A true assessment of the comparative costs of the two routes would be very helpful. What about the legal costs that Manitoba Hydro and a Tory provincial government will incur fighting the anti-east-siders, who will include the NRDC's lawyers, veterans of many environmental wars, who specialize in confrontations like this. These guys are really good and passionate about environmental preservation. Robert Kennedy Jr. was on our 2006 tour. He eats corporations for breakfast. And what about the salaries of the government and Hydro employees who will be kept busy responding to the actions of these lawyers for years, and the years of lost revenue from the juice that will not flow south while all this is being settled ? And what if Minnesota doesn't buy the energy delivered by an east-side Bipole III because it is harming native people and the environment, as it has already intimated it is (not) going to do, and what if other potential consumers in America are leveraged by a consumer campaign to refuse energy from an eastside Bipole III ? Who is Manitoba Hydro going to sell it to? What will be the cost to Manitoba's image in Canada and abroad, and to the government of Manitoba, if it craps on a prestigious World Heritage designation? How many dollars of lost business will that translate into? How many tourist dollars will not be spent ? If you add up all these real, long-term costs, the additional pricetag of going down the west side will probably be more than offset by the millions saved by not forcing a Bipole down the east side that nobody but McFadyen seems to want. So it's looking good. And it's obviously the right thing to do. If I were Hugh McFadyen, I'd find some other hot-button issue to base my campaign on, because he isn't going to be able to deliver on this one. Or maybe his real agenda, a habitue of the Leg, the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg, suggested, is that he wants to set the stage to privatize Manitoba Hydro, as he was instrumental in making happen with the provincial telephone system fifteen years ago ? If this it the plan, it is no justification for sacrificing the Land that Gives Life.
We spent most of Thursday at Bloodvein First Nation, where we were treated to a 15 minute speech by Martina Young Fisher, Bloodvein's director of cultural affairs, which said it all. "I was born Blue Sky Eagle of the sturgeon clan," she explained, "but I didn't follow my culture, I wasn't proud of it when I was growing up. I will give you some little teachings, because no one can know everything. Each of us has little gifts we must share to give balance, to know where we stand in the circle of life." The red race, Martina went on, "has never disconnected from the creation, but we have to rekindle, because once you are disconnected from the creator and his creation [Martina's spirituality was a syncretic blend of traditional Ojibwe animism and the Catholicism she had been brought up to believe in], you disconnect from yourself. God blows his spirit into the water and the trees, not just the birds and the humans. Do you know that the trees can hear you? They know everything you can say or do. When the sun comes up in the east you welcome the creator and the life he gave you, which he can take away from you at any time. We were put on this earth to travel and learn. The Red race was given that gift to look after Mother Earth. The white race was given fire. But they have to look after that fire in a good way. I open the television sometimes and it hurts me here [she clutched her heart] when I see explosions and people dying. The same way when I see hydro dams destroying our rivers...." I hope a video of Martina's complete talk can be posted on YouTube because it needs to be heard by as many people as possible, particularly by Manitobans, most whom have never experienced the vast expanses of their own forest in the east of their province, much as most Brazilians have never been to the Amazon.
After a scrumptious lunch of walleye we went for a spin up the Bloodvein in half a dozen outboards and got out at the rapids where I had put out six years earlier. And there was a group of canoeists who had just finished the same eight-day trip. I knew the state of euphoria they were in after eight days of passing through nothing but the Zen purity and vibrance of the broken-off chunks of the shield lying in the water and the wind-sculpted pines, how completely they had been cleansed of all the mental spam they had come in with. They were completely blown away to be suddenly joined by this large party of people and t.v. Cameras and the premier himself. The looks on their faces were priceless. This can't be happening. Am I hallucinating ?
We flew on southeast to Aiken Lake, where we spent the night at Aiken Lodge, a high-end fishing resort. The biggest fish in the lake, bigger even than the pike and the lake trout, is something I had never heard of called the burbot or the mariah, Lota lota. It is the only freshwater member of the cod family and has flesh that tastes like "poor man's lobster." I tried to catch one without success, which is just as well. There are many things to be discovered in this wilderness. Lake sturgeon, some of the last big herds of woodland caribou, wolverine (this is the southern limit of their range). We saw a lot of eagles. Merlins and great grey owls lurk in the conifers. I saw a great grey last time. Huge and very imposing.
We all came away from our tour of Pimachiowin Aki with the feeling that the question of where Bipole III will be routed is a historic issue for Manitoba and its native people and the boreal forest, which is absolutely exceptional (or quintessentially and primevally representative of the boreal shield ecozone) here. It's also a historic issue for Canada. Is Canada going to sell its natural splendour down the river, which the Harper government, a clone and client of the Bush regime, seems to have no qualms about doing? It's a much greater issue than I had even realized. So let's make sure we, or more important, Manitoban voters, do the right thing. The future of this magnificent wilderness heritage of the Ojibwe and in the greater sense all of us lies in their hands.
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