The land that gives life

Environment & Animal Welfare

Pimachiowin Aki empowers communities, brings about new attitudes and policy.
Elder Able Bruce drumming. Photo by H. Otake, courtesy of Pimachiowin Aki.

As a boy growing up in Bloodvein River First Nation, William Young often heard his grandfather speak about the land.

“He used to tell me stories about our… traditional territories, the trap lines and what life was like back then. And he also talked about the encroachment of industrialism. That was something that concerned him the most.”

According to his grandfather, it would be the younger generations that would have to take responsibility for the land. That is why Mr. Young decided to serve as Co-Chair of the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation.

Pimachiowin Aki – which in Ojibwe means ‘the land that gives life’ – is a charity formed by the Indigenous communities of Bloodvein River First Nation, Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Pauingassi First Nation, and Poplar River First Nation, and by the Governments of Manitoba and Ontario. The goal was to look after 29,040 square kilometers of sacred land and obtain United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site designation.

In July 2018 the goal was realized.

“I still recall that morning I received an email, how excited I was. I had to compose myself. I sat down and just went through my memories and visits with my granddad as I remembered him and honoured him and kept his legacy alive.”

Achieving the designation was a long process. The journey began in 2002, when the First Nations developed an agreement to work together to try to seek the UNESCO designation.

“It is really quite something that everybody’s stuck with it,” says former Project Manager Gord Jones, who stepped away from the charity in September, after working on the project since 2007. “A lot of the recognition has to go to the people in communities who are leading this, who continue to say, ‘This is important to us, for our future, and as part of helping to have our culture recognized internationally, and as part of… a gift to the world.’”

Obtaining the UNESCO designation required each First Nation in the site to develop land management plans, which in turn required provinces to establish legislation that enabled the First Nations to take the lead in developing those plans.

“This was a really important change and it reflects a new policy and a new attitude – that various governments need to work in co-operation and partnership with Indigenous communities to make land use decisions,” Mr. Jones says. “It can’t be the old way of just telling communities what senior governments have decided. Those kinds of policies and processes are fading into history and the approach taken here, through new legislation and helping communities take the lead in planning, is a start towards a new relationship. In some respects, it is all part of the type of reconciliation that’s inherent in [Truth and Reconciliation] Commission and in provincial policies.”

For Bloodvien River, the process involved working with community members, particularly Elders, to determine how land and water systems should be used and protected, and planning for future economic development.

“This designation means we have more authority to look after our traditional areas, that the governments will have to consult with communities about their traditional territories, any encroachment in the area needs to be passed onto the community, and they have to get approval first. It doesn’t mean we are anti-economic development; we are willing to work with anybody and everybody, providing they consult with us and work with us,” Mr. Young says.

Obtaining the designation was a learning process for all.

“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, to work in partnership with non-Indigenous people, for them to be aware what it is we have to teach and what we want to share – and that’s our culture,” Mr. Young says.

While the designation will help promote reconciliation, Mr. Young believes there may still be challenges ahead.

“We’ve always been receptive to working with non-Indigenous people but it’s always government officials and various agencies that bypassed us, so to speak, without consulting us. And we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to include everyone, we want to share what we have with the whole world. It’s not just our First Nations that are going to benefit from this designation.”

To recognize the UNSECO World Heritage Site designation, a community celebration will be held each of the four First Nations, as well as in Winnipeg. Bloodvien River’s celebration featured a community feast and performances, an opportunity to learn about the UNESCO designation. Stay tuned to learn more about Winnipeg’s celebration.

For more info:

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls to action upheld:

Reconciliation 43

We call upon federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.

This story is featured in the Fall 2018 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

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