The Manitoba government is investing $531,000 in a bid to have an area on the east side of Lake Winnipeg declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

The money will go to pay staff to prepare land use studies and do community consultations in the area, Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said.

Four First Nations have been working on the bid for nearly three years. Struthers said the money would help the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation — a partnership of the First Nations and the governments of Manitoba and Ontario — to prepare the nomination document and video.

'These extra resources and funding will help them get a lot of important work completed.' —Sophia Rabliauskas, Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson

The site the government is seeking to have declared contains 40,000 square kilometres of vast boreal forest, rivers, lakes and wetlands spread across the Canadian shield and straddling the Manitoba-Ontario border.

It provides a habitat for wildlife such as woodland caribou, wolverine and bald eagles, according to the Pimachiowin Aki heritage project website. If the UNESCO bid is successful, the region would join attractions like the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef as World Heritage sites.

The First Nations involved include Poplar River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, and Pikangikum.

Pimachiowin Aki spokesperson Sophia Rabliauskas noted that while these plans are being developed, the corporation is continuing its work on a variety of studies and community consultations required for the nomination.

Traditional and contemporary methods to be used

The completed nomination will include the final boundaries of the site and will also describe the innovative ways the area will be managed using both traditional Anishinabe and western scientific knowledge.

'We know we have to be very thorough with this document.' —Stan Struthers, Manitoba conservation minister  

"Our UNESCO nomination has to be very detailed, starting with a vision from each of the First Nations partners on how they see the land being used and cared for. Our land-use plan for Poplar River is complete and the focus is now on getting the land-use plans for Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi completed," said Rabliauskas. "These extra resources and funding will help them get a lot of important work completed."

Creating a world heritage site in the area would not change the ownership of the land. Each jurisdiction would be responsible for planning and management in its area and all aboriginal and treaty rights would remain fully protected, Struthers said.

It will still be some time before the UN actually receives all the material and begins the judging process, he added.

"We're looking at 2011 — late 2011 — for our document to be ready and to move on to the UNESCO nomination folks to take a look at," Struthers said. "We know we have to be very thorough with this document."

Government making a mistake: provincial Tories

The Manitoba Conservatives say the government is making a huge mistake by not running Manitoba Hydro transmission lines through the area. Leader Hugh McFadyen supports the UNESCO bid, but said the government should include the transmission lines as a land use in the region, and include them in the document.

But the NDP plans to run the hydro lines on the west side of Lake Winnipeg at substantially greater cost. Struthers said the UNESCO bid would be threatened by building the power lines on the east side.

McFadyen said there is no indication the bid for the UNESCO designation would suffer with a hydro line in the region. The east side of the lake is a more economical route for the hydro line and would give the region an economic shot in the arm, he said.

"What we've been arguing is that there is room for limited development and a UNESCO designation, and a win-win for east-side communities who need the economic development as well as for all Manitobans, " he said.