A Wrongly Placed National Park that will Cost First Nations Jobs

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

Why is the federal government planning to create a national park on top of potentially lucrative nickel ore deposits?  It is a question local indigenous communities in Northern Manitoba that stand to benefit from mineral development are asking.

The Manitoba Lowlands near Grand Rapids between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis are designated to become a national park according to the recent federal budget. The Liberals have not presented a timeline for its creation, but are certainly signalling this plan.

There is no doubt that this area has environmental value. It includes breath taking limestone cliffs, an aquamarine lake, very productive wetlands, and a region unique in the province where four species–deer, bison, elk and moose–share the habitat. The region has some things that need protecting. However, it is not completely clear why Manitoba needs a new 4,400-square-kilometre national park that will cut off economic development for the local Indigenous communities.

Regional Indigenous leaders from the area are wary of a conventional public park because it could become a tourist magnet which may damage the area’s sensitive ecology.

But, the main problem is that the proposed park includes the southern extension of the Thompson nickel belt. Mining representatives say the park includes feeder ore deposits that will keep mining going in the Thompson region for years to come. Recently, the mining giant Vale said it will be closing one of its mines in the area next fall putting at least 150 people out of work. Vale says the mine is closing because it is running out of ore.

The presence of ore in the southern extension may potentially present a lifeline for many companies and the region. This must be considered before a park is created. The federal government must work with the provinces and the Indigenous communities in balancing environmental and economic interests. Manitoba already has considerable protected lands at the provincial level. In 2011, Little Limestone Lake–located on the Lowlands–became Manitoba’s 85th provincial park. At that time, Manitoba had 6.5 million hectares in protection. The Manitoba government is looking at creating the Polar Bear Provincial Park–a major source of wetlands for migratory birds.

Why not maintain jobs for the Indigenous communities in the region by allowing multiple uses in the Grand Rapids region, including mining interests and the development of more ore deposits?.

In addition, a working mine pours royalties into the provincial government and supports many other industries. Manitoba’s pro-mining policies developed by its former NDP government  have made the province an attractive investment destination. Allowing a national park to be created on top of some of the most potentially rich ore deposits in the country worth billions will remove a major economic development opportunity for both indigenous communities and Manitoba.

Indigenous communities have a lot to gain from new mining developments. In 2015, it was reported Manitoba First Nations ranked lowest in the country on UN Development Index.

The solution is for Manitoba bands to partner with resource companies and governments. They must avoid the example of Attawapiskat–a troubled community in Northern Ontario where the leaders protested new mines instead of welcoming and sharing their economic bounty with them.

Progressive Conservative Steven Fletcher and Liberal Jon Gerrard are MLAs in the Manitoba Legislature who recently held a stakeholder’s meeting which included miners, prospectors, eco-tourism operators, and First Nations. Their goal  was to find common ground and allow for the development of the mining industry in Manitoba while at same time ensuring First Nations are part of the solution and participate in decision making.

They urged more mining development within the southern extension region. However, they want to protect the areas that need to be protected and build good will by focusing on areas that are environmentally important but where there is little opportunity for mining. Public and private infrastructure already exist to continue the mining operation. The region has highways, an airport, a rail line, electric power, and a nearby smelter.

Fletcher and Gerrard suggest that all the stakeholders can meet the objective of protecting the environment and maximizing the economic potential of natural and human resources of Manitoba.

For example, Fletcher has suggested moving the proposed park north to protect the Seal River watershed. As one of the few pristine watersheds in the world it could be Manitoba’s gift to the world (and meet UN conservation targets). The bonus would be that there are no mining-dependent communities or mining claims in the region.

Indigenous communities and the provincial government must work with Ottawa to accommodate commonsense and relocate its well intended plans for a new national park.

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. fcpp.org