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Feature Story
Photo of the Bloodvein River
Who Owns This River?

by Alex Shoumatoff

Manitoba Hydro wants to build transmission lines (that no one needs) through a proposed World Heritage site. First Nations and conservationists have a better idea.

It is the beginning of September, and my 10-year-old son Oliver and I have flown from Montreal to Winnipeg, the capital of central Canada's province of Manitoba. We are going to spend eight days canoeing a river called the Bloodvein. This is the third Canadian river I've run this summer. I've been trying to get a sense of the vast wilderness known as the boreal, which covers 53 percent of the country's land surface and is blanketed by one of the last still largely undisturbed forests on the planet. Dotted with 1.5 million lakes and drained by innumerable rivers, the boreal drapes across the continent, from the Yukon to Labrador, like a green collar 3,000 miles long and 600 deep.

Photo of the Bloodvein, a Canadian Heritage RiverEleven others are going down the Bloodvein, and we all meet at the downtown offices of the Boreal Forest Network, a small but vociferous not-for-profit whose executive director, Don Sullivan, has put the trip together. Sullivan is a droopy-mustached, slow-talking, chain-smoking 49-year-old who, for 15 years, has been in the trenches advocating for the boreal and its native people, grappling with multinational corporations and provincial bureaucrats. He is a winner of the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal for making an outstanding contribution to his commonwealth country, but it doesn't seem to have gone to his head.

We first met several months earlier, when he took me and a group of activists to visit two native communities north of the Bloodvein, one of which -- the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake -- is fighting a new series of dams that Manitoba Hydro, the province's energy utility, wants to build. I've come to think of it as Manitoba's many-headed Hydro: You don't quite know where this serpent is going to strike next, and it isn't telling you. In addition to the new dams, Hydro wants to run several high-voltage transmission lines that would cut across a proposed UNESCO World Heritage site: 10.6 million acres, virtually untouched, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

The Bloodvein winds right through the proposed site, which is why we are here. It is considered by canoeing cognoscenti to be one of the top runs in Canada, not because of the technical challenge of its rapids but because of its beauty. David Pancoe, a young outfitter who is supplying the canoes, tents, and food, will be responsible for getting us down the river in one piece. Louis Young, the 48-year-old former chief of Bloodvein First Nation, a community of 1,100-some Ojibways at the mouth of the river, will be escorting us through his people's traditional territory, which includes both banks of the Bloodvein for three miles back.

The World Heritage designation is crucial, because it would offer added protection from not only the transmission lines but also the timber and paper and mining companies, the vacation cottage developers, the hunters and snowmobilers who are dying to get in here. There are currently 788 sites in the World Heritage system. These are places of "outstanding universal value" for either natural or cultural reasons. But it is up to the 134 countries where they are located to protect them with whatever conservation laws they have in place. Canada already has 13 World Heritage sites; none include any part of Manitoba's vast boreal forest. There are still a few years of bureaucratic hurdles that have to be cleared in Winnipeg, in Ottawa, and at UNESCO before the 10.6 million acres in question receive World Heritage status. The problem is that Hydro would love to get its transmission lines in before the designation is secured. So the race is on.

Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Alexander's Marvelous Machine

Click to enlarge

Where the Action Is

These groups are involved in the campaign for Manitoba's proposed World Heritage site:

Manitoba Wildlands
Boreal Forest Network

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This article was made possible by a grant from the Josephine Albright Patterson Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Many of Alex Shoumatoff's articles from the The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, OnEarth, and other publications can be found on his web site,, which is dedicated largely to raising environmental awareness.

Photos: Don Sullivan
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council