Manitoba is establishing its first Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the northern part of the province, a big step forward in conservation and reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples.
The Seal River Watershed, west of Churchill, measures roughly 50,000 square kilometres – almost the size of Nova Scotia – and is one of the largest intact watersheds in the world.
Watersheds direct rainfall, snowmelt and runoff into a larger body of water, kind of like a bowl. They help clean drinking water and stabilize soils.
Four First Nations, the Seal River Watershed Alliance and the governments of Canada and Manitoba signed an agreement to protect the land on Jan. 18.
Collaboration between government and Indigenous communities balance conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity while maintaining culturally appropriate and sustainable uses.
As an avid outdoorsperson, Caroline Wintoniw says she’s thrilled the watershed is being protected. She also thinks it’s a step toward reconciliation with local Indigenous groups that have been taking care of the land for centuries.
“It is important because of the fact that it is their land, and so it’s a huge win,” Wintoniw says. “It shouldn’t have to be that they should be fighting for that.”
Wintoniw paddled the Seal River with 10 others in 2020 up to Hudson Bay. She says the canoe trip was one of the best she’s been on, because of the “huge whitewater, beautiful open tundra areas and gorgeous wide, open eskers.”
The watershed is also home to at least 25 at-risk species, including animals like seals, beluga whales, polar bears, caribou and arctic tern.
“It had been kind of a bucket-list trip for several years just because of the pristine wilderness that it is and that it is one of those ... untouched areas of Manitoba,” she says.
Although the land being protected is in Northern Manitoba, it still impacts Winnipeg and the southern parts of the province, Ron Thiessen, executive director for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), says.
“We feel the impacts or the benefits of the Seal River Watershed every single day, because it holds a tremendous amount of carbon in its trees and soils,” he says. “The countless trees in the watershed ... are a critical part of Earth’s life-support system in terms of oxygen production.”
The intake of carbon helps to slow or reduce negative impacts of climate change. According to a study in 2021 from the non-profit Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Seal River Watershed stores 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to eight years of greenhouse-gas emissions in the country.
The provincial government is committing to the protection of 30 per cent of Manitoba by 2030. Thiessen says the goal is ambitious but achievable and necessary for maintaining balance between conservation and development.
The Seal River Watershed makes up eight per cent of the province. An additional three per cent of wildlands and waters are protected.
Thiessen echoes Wintoniw in saying that conservation is crucial for reconciliation.
“One of the pieces that’s often cited from Indigenous Nations is to have the ability to formally steward and protect their traditional lands, to have Canada acknowledge their place and their authority on the landscape,” Thiessen says.
“This is a way for Canada and Indigenous Nations to formalize their relationship about how to protect and manage the land.”
He says the area is one-of-a-kind and relatively untouched by human development.
“Every stream and river flows as nature intended it. There’s no dams, there’s no mines, no Hydro lines,” he says. “There aren’t even any permanent roads. What you find instead is an incredible abundance of wildlife ... roaming unhindered across the boreal forest in the tundra.”
Published in Volume 78, Number 16 of The Uniter (February 1, 2024)