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Manitoba Lowlands National Park
The Proposed Manitoba Lowlands National Park is an opportunity for the people of Grand Rapids to develop their own vision of future park development. News articles are included in this educational site to better inform the school and its students about local news, so that they can add their voices to discussion about the region’s present issues and future development. To do so, however, they need to be critical thinkers, able to sift through information and ask questions to make sense of it.
For copyright reasons, the following news stories are summaries rather than verbatim copies of the original newspaper articles. Pay attention to the footnotes because they contain comments and questions that are designed to model critical thinking through analysis, so that students can get into the habit of reading critically themselves.
11 August 2007: “NOT In Their Backyard: Grand Rapids Cree scuttle plans for another Manitoba national park” [Winnipeg Free Press, A7]
According to Bartley Kives, the Manitoba Lowlands National Park announced in 2002 was a dead issue because Ovide Mercredi, Chief of the Misipawistic Cree Nation at Grand Rapids, opposed it. The new park was projected to include two parcels of land on the north-western shore of Lake Winnipeg and the federal government had a $40 Million dollar plan to create trails, campgrounds, and an interpretive centre. On the face of it, the project was exciting, and it had the support of the chiefs of nearby Chemawawin and Mosakahiken Cree Nations. It would have included 4,400 square kilometres of land and, as explained by Kives, “was supposed to protect pristine wetlands, forests, beaches and limestone features that typify the karst-dominated Manitoba Lowlands, an ecological zone that has yet to be represented by a national park.” Kives added that it “would have included Canada’s longest freshwater sandspit at Limestone Point, lake-front cliffs at Sturgeon Gill Point, bat caves and nesting habitat for pelicans, cormorants, blue herons, bald eagles and osprey.”
So what went wrong? Perhaps a story will illustrate. Back in the 1970s, Parks Canada decided unilaterally to close the golf course at Wasagaming on the south side of Riding Mountain National Park. In the minds of local people, it was a knee-jerk response to environmental concerns about the commercialisation of the park, and rumour had it that the entire town of Wasagaming was going to be dismantled. Well, don’t rile a Manitoban, especially if he’s a golfer, and don’t leave him out of the decision-making process. The battle was on, and Parks Canada took cover! The result? That golf course is still there, and Wasagaming is thriving. Too bad Parks Canada and those Ottawa bureaucrats and politicians didn’t learn something from that incident. It’s not acceptable to make a decision, then expect everyone affected by that decision to rubberstamp it.
It is difficult enough to effect change in a community when proper consultation occurs, but almost impossible when people are excluded from the process. And this is what happened in Grand Rapids. Right from the outset, people from the chief down had their backs up, and in view of past experience, understandably so. The Grand Rapids Dam was supposed to bring prosperity, too, but it never materialised, and the “Taj Mahal,” the multi-million dollar residence for Hydro workers who don’t live in the community, is a testament to the barriers that exist between local residents and people from the outside. Why should they believe a park will bring anything different?
There were many reasons given locally for opposition to the park. People worried that they would lose the “right to hunt, fish, log, swim, camp and gather medicine on their traditional lands.” Misipawistic Cree Nation is also “seeking to expand as part of what’s bound to be a lengthy Treaty Land Entitlement process.” Obviously, the creation of a national park could muddy the waters of negotiation. There was also the scepticism, voiced by Mercredi and others, that the Lowlands would not be protected, that a park “would not mean protection for wildlife, but admission fees, cottages, golf courses and uncontrolled tourism development.” Brian Ballantyne, a commercial fisherman, feared “tourists would accidentally dig up the remains of Cree ancestors buried along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.” His cousin Bruce Ballentyne, a Hydro worker, feared “the loss of his family’s hunting rights.” However, opposition to the park was not unanimous. Sherry Nasikapow, a local resident, liked the idea of a national park, because there were “so many beautiful spots that should be preserved.” And trapper and commercial fisherman Colin McKay said that a park “would help dwindling moose stocks.”
Chief Mercredi disagreed. He was looking at something different from a national park, something that would be governed by the Cree, “allowing traditional land use in areas such as Long Point and tourism development north of the existing First Nation.” Heidi Cook, Misipawistic Cree Nation tourism manager, had done a land-use study indicating that the local people used all of the land that would be included in a new national park. She thought there would be room for tourism, and Chief Mercredi himself was not opposed to tourism. Indeed, the community is “planning to build a new gas bar, motel, lodge and hopefully campgrounds and trails.”
Chief Mercredi planned to discuss a Cree Preservation Zone with the federal government and with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Time will tell if there is support for this idea. In the meantime, the park is not in the cards.
Reaction to Kives’s article was swift and polarised.
14 August 2007: “Park opportunity blown” [Winnipeg Free Press, Letter of the Day, A11]
Judy Waytiuk, a travel writer from Winnipeg, accused Ovide Mercredi of “politicized short-sightedness” in his bid to “kill” the new national park. She took issue with his negative assessment of Riding Mountain and Banff National Parks, saying that “the philosophy behind national parks has changed dramatically, as have the methods by which they are governed in the context of local people’s involvement.” She cited Kouchibougouac in New Brunswick “where there is no development aside from a few hiking and biking trails and a small interpretive centre staffed almost completely by local aboriginal people, and a few small fishing dock areas that pre-date the park’s formation and have stayed in respect for the people who were there before the park.” Waytiuk also mentioned Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia “which is jointly run by the Haida people and the federal government; in fact, the Haida have more representation on the governing council than the non-aboriginals.”
Waytiuk wrote that Chief Mercredi had “denied his people a unique, permanent opportunity to celebrate and share their culture and history with park visitors, and to take advantage of jobs that could have been created – jobs as naturalists, park interpreters, even resource centre employees.” She argued that “the park could only have strengthened the northern Cree people’s sense of identity and ties to their land” and that “its location would have ensured only those who really wanted to visit would come, to learn and experience the geography of this place.” 
Waytiuk concluded her letter as follows. “It’s a shame he [Chief Mercredi] apparently did no homework before he reacted with a narrow-minded, politically opportunistic attitude, and destroyed this potentially huge opportunity for his people as well as the opportunity for Canada to protect a rare and unusual geology for all future generations to treasure.”
Strong words, but there was a rebuttal of sorts!
16 August 2007: “Park gets in the way” [Winnipeg Free Press, Letters to the Editor, A10]
Graham Dixon of Winnipeg came to the defence of Chief Mercredi. He felt Judy Waytiuk could benefit from some of her own advice and become better informed about Mercredi and Grand Rapids. She could have learned that the community was host “to this year’s Cree Gathering, a national event with representation from the 270,000 Cree in Canada with an anticipated attendance of well over 1,000.”
Not only that, “she would have discovered that Chief Mercredi recently travelled to Israel with members of his band to gain knowledge of greenhouse technology and management.”
Chief Mercredi also intended “to improve dietary habits while creating jobs through local production of fresh vegetables” and Dixon added that Mercredi had “other plans for his people that he believes will expand economic as well as social benefits for the area while preserving access to traditional hunting, fishing and trapping lands.”
Dixon made passing reference to the Hydro dam and the changes it made, then asked this question, “Does this First Nation, along with many others, need help in charting a path to the future?” And his answer, “Of course it does, but it helps to understand and respect the history of how matters came to be what they are while offering useful support.” He concluded his letter with this final assessment of Waytiuk’s letter, “The ranting of a disappointed travel writer does not offer much constructive advice.”
11 March 2009: “No walk in the park for Cree Nation’s project: Chief says NDP stalling – but minister denies that” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]
Fisher River Cree Nation and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which was assisting the aboriginal community, accused the provincial government of “foot-dragging in the development of a provincial scenic wilderness park on the southwest basin of Lake Winnipeg.” According to reporter Larry Kusch, the proposed Ochiwasahow Provincial Park would be “four times the size of Winnipeg” and “permanently safeguard the area from industrial development.” The focus would be the creation of jobs through tourism.
On 10 March 2009, Fisher River Chief David Crate held a news conference to plead his case, which had the support of “a petition with 10,000 signatures from Manitobans supporting the project, as well as endorsements from federal and provincial politicians of all stripes and support in principle from nearby Peguis First Nation as well as Jackhead First Nation, which is situated on the proposed park’s northwest border.” Environmentalists also supported the project for its “pristine beaches, old-growth forests and abundant wildlife, including several endangered species.” The proposed park also has an “extensive limestone cave system where thousands of bats hibernate in the winter.”
Although the government had made a commitment to establish five protected areas in Manitoba, several years had passed with nothing having been done. Provincial officials argued that they lacked the manpower to move Fisher River proposal forward, but Ron Thiessen, executive director of the Manitoba chapter of CPAWS, said his group believed that if the will was there, then the resources would be there, too. Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said that the project was moving forward, but the government was also aware that there could be concerns from neighbouring reserves because the park proposal was expanded in 2006 to nearly double the project to 160,000 hectares. However, Thiessen said these concerns had been resolved, and other issues could be “dealt with in the formal consultations that Fisher River Cree Nation and CPAWS” wanted the government to establish.
Discussion: The park proposal at Fisher River may have some lessons for Grand Rapids. What is the agenda of CPAWS? Is its focus on environmentalism in the interest of the people of Fisher River? Economic development is of vital importance in the area, where unemployment is high. Would the focus on tourism limit other economic development that could create local jobs? Consider government restrictions in other provincial parks. Even logging of deadfall has now been forbidden. What impact could that have locally? What are the pitfalls of creating yet another level of government bureaucracy at Fisher River? Are there other options to a provincial park?
What Kind of a Park for Grand Rapids? Ideas for Discussion
Tourism is a promising avenue for economic development in Northern Manitoba for at least two reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of people in Canada, the U.S.A. and Europe who have the money and are interested in traveling to remote parts of the world to experience the outdoors in all its pristine beauty. Secondly, many of them are also fascinated by the history and cultures of aboriginal peoples. A place like Grand Rapids scores on both counts. Not only does it have unique environmental features, but it also has a rich cultural heritage preserved in Misipawistik Cree Nation and the adjoining town of Grand Rapids.
Often people look elsewhere for opportunities, when there are all kinds of them on their own door steps. Consider the possibilities at places like Grand Rapids. If you are part of the community, try to see it as those tourists see it. What do they want? What do you have to offer? And what is the best way to develop a relationship that ensures a win-win experience for all involved?
So, put your imagination to work and generate some ideas on tourism at Grand Rapids, not only focused on the type of park that would be appropriate, but also on the kinds of complementary business ventures that could evolve with a well-designed park.
Research to find out what is being done elsewhere. As a starter, read Barbara Hager’s “Aboriginal Tourism: Promoting your History to the World.” Then, see what is already being done in different parts of Canada. Below are a number of different options.
Click on the footnote number to return to the text:
 Parks Canada had the legal right to make decisions governing the park, as it had this authority given to it by the Canadian government, but the moral right to do so was in question. Indeed, the moral right to act must have the “assent and assistance”, or at least [be] without the opposition, of public opinion.” The sanction of public opinion is often “more dreaded than many legal penalties.” In other words, public opinion can turn aside legal rights, as illustrated in the examples of Riding Mountain National Park and the proposed park at Grand Rapids. See David George Ritchie, “Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions.” (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Look at it from Chief Mercredi’s point of view, who is quoted as saying, “I was watching TV when I saw this Frenchman paddling along the shore of my community, talking about a new national park. I thought to myself, ‘Who is this man who is going to impose his wishes on my people?’” From that perspective, is his initial opposition to the park understandable? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 For more information, and a picture of the building, see “The Taj Mahal of Grand Rapids?” in Grand Rapids Stories, Vol. 2 (Winnipeg: Frontier School Division, 1997), 132-133. (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Is this a legitimate concern? Check the rules and restrictions governing national parks to see if there is a basis for people’s fears. (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 How could the establishment of a park interfere with local desire to expand Misipawistic Cree Nation? Find out more about the positions of the local and federal governments on expansion. Are they mutually exclusive? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Is this a legitimate complaint about national parks. Do they not protect wildlife? Is there uncontrolled tourism development? Research to find out if these claims are correct. (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 This concern prompts questions. Are there registered trap lines in the areas that had been designated for the park? What would happen to these trap lines, if a park were created? Here the reader has an opportunity to weigh the value of an argument. Why might concern over hunting rights be a more legitimate argument against the park than the possibility that someone might accidentally dig up an ancestor? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Sherry Nasikapow’s concern is protection of the existing landscape. Why might she feel a new park would meet that concern? If there were adequate safeguards, would she care who looked after the area in question? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 What assumptions might underlie Colin McKay’s remarks? You may have to talk to him to find out more! (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 A question naturally flows from Chief Mercredi’s vision. Does all protection of unique natural landscapes in Canada have to look the same? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 A critical reading of the text should raise a couple of concerns here. Firstly, studies are often used as justification for action. The problem with them is that they may be designed to “prove” a preconceived conclusion. How do we know this study was reliable, when it was not conducted by an “independent” agency? Secondly, how does one reconcile traditional land use on crown lands that are presently “owned” by the people of Canada? When do treaty rights take precedence over the rights of the country as a whole? This is a vexing question that as yet is unresolved. (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 When there is a deadlock on an issue, a compromise becomes necessary. How might a Cree Preservation Zone honour the intent behind a national park while meeting the needs of the local community? Or is that compromise impossible? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 What may have been Ms. Waytiuk’s motivation in writing this introductory sentence in the way she did? Was she being conciliatory? How might she have rephrased this question to influence Chief Mercredi positively? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 The observation may be accurate, but how did her initial statement weaken its impact? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 How could this new information be helpful to the people of Grand Rapids? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Evidently, there is more than one model for a national park already, and this one appears on the surface to be similar to what Chief Mercredi envisions. Could some compromise be achieved, so that Grand Rapids gets the type of park it wants along with the $40 million (and possibly more) promised by the federal government to develop and operate it? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 In view of Chief Mercredi’s stated position on the park, is this a fair judgment? Is it either or? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 This is strong criticism that oozes with assumptions on Mercredi’s motivation. Is it fair or constructive? What is often the negative consequence of such claims? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Dixon may have been well intentioned in his remark about the trip to Israel, but how relevant is it to the issue of the park? In view of the negative media publicity concerning such trips, what impact could this information have on the mostly non-aboriginal readership of The Winnipeg Free Press? (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
 Dixon exposed the flaws in Waytiuk’s letter, but did not mention the useful information she included about national parks. As a result, he contributed little to the debate over the development of the region proposed as a national park. Perhaps readers could come up with ideas on the type of park that might please everybody. The Internet has information on parks in Canada which have either an aboriginal focus or aboriginal input. That seems a logical place to begin research. (Click on the footnote number to return to the text.)
Last updated: August 11, 2010