Mik'maq hope to protect heritage with proposed P.E.I. national park reserve
Public consultations are now underway as part of assessment process
For Chief Darlene Bernard of Lennox Island First Nation, the islands protecting the Mi'kmaw community are of vital importance.
"It's a Mi'kmaw heritage landscape that we are extremely proud of — we all hold very dear to our hearts," Bernard said from the band office in Lennox Island, P.E.I.
A feasibility assessment is currently underway to look into turning the area into a national park reserve known as Pituamkek.
The Mi'kmaw word means "at the long sand dune" and is pronounced bee-doo-um-gek.
The main islands are known as Hog Island, Bird Island and there are several others. They are made up of dune ecosystems called sandhills.
Mi'kmaq have used the area for a long time with archeological finds dating back thousands of years.
The area continues to have a close connection to the neighbouring community of Lennox Island.
"Very fond memories of going there and it was like a smorgasbord of all kinds of wonderful things," said Bernard.
"We had the berries, the cranberries and we had the shellfish and all of the fish of the sea — all the abundance that the Creator has given us is there."
Steps along the way
In 2006, The Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. arranged for an archeological survey to be conducted in the area of Hog Island and surrounding sandhills. Several important sites were discovered and archeological work continues taking place in partnership with the government of P.E.I.
Work was then put forward to look at how to better protect the area and make a case for the creation of a Parks Canada site following criteria based on national significance and reasons for stronger protections.
In 2019, the feasibility assessment for a national park reserve kicked off with a tripartite agreement between the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils, and the provincial and federal governments.
"One of the huge benefits that we had was this depth of studies and knowledge and work that the Mi'kmaq had done," said Shanna MacDonald, senior negotiator for protected areas establishment in southern Canada for Parks Canada.
"We were invited to be part of this process that had already been ongoing for 15 years."
Community engagement was originally delayed in its rollout due to the pandemic limits on public gatherings.
Much of the community engagement will now be online. There will be webinars to get the information out as well as information pages on both Parks Canada and the L'nuey websites.
People can provide feedback through the the webinar, a survey on the Parks Canada site or through contacting Parks Canada directly.
"We are looking for how people are currently using the area," said MacDonald. "To see how people engage with that, what their hopes are for that land, what they would like to see in the future."
So far, MacDonald said they have had more than 120 questionnaires completed since launching at the beginning of June.
Unique Island geology
It is also home to a geological feature unique on P.E.I. — an igneous rock formation. Also known as volcanic rock, the formation is more than 240 million years old.
The sandhill dune islands stretch for 50 kilometres from east to west providing a protective barrier to the lands to the south from the full might of the ocean's wave and storm impacts.
It also provides sensitive coastal dune ecosystems that have creatures like the piping plover, little brown bat and the Gulf of St. Lawrence aster.
National park reserve
The government of Canada is working to expand protected and conserved areas and has committed to conserving 25 per cent of the nation's lands and waters by 2025.
The difference between a national park and a national park reserve is that there are unresolved claims of Indigenous rights in the area.
Negotiations around Hog Island Specific Claim are ongoing, dating back to 1996 over lands purchased in 1942.
Parks Canada is working with the Epekwitk Assembly of Councils — made up of the full councils of Lennox Island and Abegweit First Nation — on the feasibility assessment.
The mandate moving forward with new park spaces would be to work with First Nations' communities to preserve and celebrate ancestral and contemporary connections to the land.
It would also blend science and traditional knowledge to learn and teach about the land and its history, as well as provide opportunities for visitor experiences.
I think that when I say protect it it is for everyone to enjoy and be able to continue to enjoy forever and a day.— Chief Darlene Bernard
Chief Bernard said she is firm in her belief that while the ultimate goal is the protection of the area, they want to be able to share it with others as well.
"I think that would be the best thing we can do to protect it," said Bernard.
"And when I say protection, I'm not saying that it is secret and no one should go there. I think that when I say protect it it is for everyone to enjoy and be able to continue to enjoy forever and a day."
Once the feasibility assessment is finished the next step would be to have an agreement on a formal park concept.
Then a memorandum of understanding would be negotiated before coming up with a formal establishment agreement.
People have until July 23 to have their say in the Pituamkek feasibly assessment.