On June 16, 2011, the Manitoba government announced that it had legally protected 807,650 hectares of boreal forest and wetlands on the east side of Lake Winnipeg as protected traditional territory of the Poplar River First Nation.

As an Ecojustice lawyer, I have watched the Poplar River First Nation land management planning exercise unfold over the past several years. In a decade of work on development, conservation and First Nation issues across Canada, Manitoba’s decision to respect and give the force of law to the Poplar River First Nation land management plan is the most successful process and outcome.

By legally recognizing the Poplar River First Nation’s plan, Manitoba has ensured the community will play a significant role in developing and implementing strategies for the use, management and sustainable development of their traditional lands.

The new category of protected area designation used by Manitoba to protect the traditional territory of the Poplar River First Nation represents an evolution in thinking about protected areas. “Protection” doesn’t necessarily mean the banning of all human activity and the dislocation of First Nation peoples and their land uses. Instead, it is recognition that First Nation stewardship of lands and resources should be valued and respected in a protected areas system.

Working in co-ordination with First Nations is the only way that governments can successfully engage in meaningful conservation. Unfortunately, governments across Canada have consistently ignored this reality when creating protected areas. This has often led to the forced removal of First Nation people from their traditional lands, prosecution of First Nation people for fishing or hunting in park areas that used to be their traditional lands and waters, and not surprisingly, opposition by First Nations to the protection of additional areas.

The Manitoba government and Poplar River First Nation have shown patience, open-mindedness and determination in this process and deserve congratulations. I look forward to the impact of this historic process and hope governments elsewhere in Canada learn from this success story.

Poplar River’s land management plan will be part of a bid in 2012 to designate the area East of Lake Winnipeg extending into Ontario as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (See MAP). The land-management plans of the Bloodvein, Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids and Pikangikum First Nations, two Manitoba provincial parks and an Ontario provincial park will also form part of the UNESCO bid.

by Justin Duncan