Pemmican Island earns provincial park status, after years of prodding by First Nations, environmentalists | CBC News

Pemmican Island has been designated Manitoba’s 93rd provincial park, much to the relief of First Nations and environmentalists who fought for years to keep the remote, 27-hectare island in the north basin of Lake Winnipegosis free from mining activity.

“Our vision was protecting habitat, protecting forest, protecting animals, where they could have a place to live,” said Chief Nelson Genaille of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation. 

“Now it’s finally becoming a reality, and I see it as a blessing to leave something as pristine as that island, as a legacy.”

The chief says the island, about 175 kilometres north of Dauphin, is critical for wildlife.

“It’s a place where animals gather in winter time and seek refuge,” he said. “Sometimes moose go there to calve because it’s an island where wolves are not able to swim.”

Pemmican Island’s designation as a provincial park was announced Tuesday in a press release from the province, which called it an important habitat for colonial water birds protected under the Wildlife Act, most notably double-crested cormorants, which use the island as nesting grounds.

“Our government recognizes the importance of protecting nature and by designating Pemmican Island as a provincial park, we will ensure its diverse ecosystem and intrinsic cultural value will be preserved for future generations,” said Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt, in the written announcement.

Chief Nelson Genaille wearing a traditional headdress.
Chief Nelson Genaille of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation said the park designation follows decades of pushing the province and mining companies to protect Pemmican Island from resource extraction. (Submitted by Nelson Genaille)

But Pemmican Island’s newly minted status didn’t come easily, according to Genaille, who’d been calling for it to be protected since his days as a tribal councillor, long before becoming chief in 2010.

“23 years now that I’ve been on it,” said Genaille, recounting many phone calls to government officials and resource extraction companies over the years.

“I even held back mining companies from potential drilling there,” he said. “Now it’s going to be safe from industry, and people can enjoy it forever.”

Pemmican is part of a network of islands that became provincial parks in 2017, but it did not receive the same designation six years ago because of a mining exploration claim issued by the province to Klyne Exploration, to look for zinc and nickel in the island and the surrounding lake bed.

Exploratory drilling

“Basically, how they explained it to me is that a big drill would go through the island and see what they can find,” Genaille said, adding that officials tried to assure him exploratory drilling wouldn’t impact water quality.

“They said, ‘No, no, don’t worry about it, it’s just going to be plugged and it ain’t going to leak anywhere.’ [I said] that’s destroying fish habitat, let alone plants,” Genaille said. 

“So I threatened a lawsuit at that time. They didn’t follow through with it, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Joining Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in the fight to preserve Pemmican Island was the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

“We were very concerned the island would be mined,” said CPAWS Manitoba executive director Ron Thiessen.

“Considering the size of the island, we didn’t think that would be feasible ecologically, because it’s such a small island and it’s such a huge impact by comparison,” said Thiessen. “So we’re very pleased to see that the mining claim has been withdrawn.”

He said CPAWS supporters contacted the province in large numbers during public consultations, calling for the park designation for Pemmican Island, and he’s relieved the government finally delivered.

The province says 96 per cent of the 426 participants who took part in a public survey were in favour of the designation.

“The province said it always had the intention of establishing Pemmican Island as a protected island,” Thiessen said.

“However, that didn’t add up as they allowed the mining claim to stay and to explore that opportunity. So we always felt that seemed like a contradiction.”

He said the province could have made this move years ago.

“When Little Limestone Lake Provincial Park was established, the Manitoba government bought out some of the mining claims that were a hindrance to protecting the area,” Thiessen said.

“In this case, they didn’t buy it out. The company decided to let it go.”

CBC contacted the northern development minister’s office for more information on the mining claim, but did not get a response before deadline.

Thiessen hopes the provincial government will work to protect more public lands, as called for by the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity. The international framework set a target of effectively conserving and managing at least 30 per cent of the world’s ecosystems by 2030.

“Currently, Manitoba is just over 11 per cent protected and we’re calling on all the political parties in the upcoming election to commit to producing an action plan that will protect 30 per cent of Manitoba by 2030,” said Thiessen.

Genaille believes politicians of all parties have been putting profits over conservation for too long.

“If they’re really serious about protecting habitat and forested animals, they shouldn’t issue mining exploration licences,” said the chief.

“Money is going to come and go,” he said. “But now [Pemmican Island] is going to stay there forever.”

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