Grassy Narrows blockade

Treaties, trees and sharing: A frontline report, March 2003.

It was past midnight as we stood around the bonfire beside a logging road in northwestern Ontario. It was a “roving blockade,” part of a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between the Anishinaabe people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and Montreal-based logging giant Abitibi Consolidated.

Tired of watching logging trucks haul away the bounty of their 2,500 square mile Traditional Land Use Area, the people of Grassy Narrows are inserting themselves into decision-making in their homeland.

For decades the Ontario government has granted large logging companies the right to clearcut in the area which Grassy Narrows people traditionally have used to provide for themselves, and to which they have treaty rights. Lands and resources that once sustained them now sustain corporations far away, and the forest is harmed in the process.

Nor are Grassy Narrows residents alone in seeking access to the wealth and opportunities that surround them. Elsewhere across Northern Ontario, huge sections of land are being opened up for forestry or mining development, without consideration for Aboriginal rights and jurisdiction. Hornepayne First Nation recently joined the Grassy Narrows blockade and in February, Aroland First Nation began blocking Highway 43.

“Our people want to have a say in the state of our forests, participate in the opportunities and maintain our way of life into future generations,” says Leo Jourdain, Grand Chief for Treaty Three, the political organization for 28 First Nations in the region. Matthew Coon Come, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, showed his support at the blockade Feb.27.

As we awaited the loggers – who haul at night on roads leading to the pulp and paper mill 80 km south in Kenora – there was a heightened energy in the air. But instead of the Oka-esque militancy that stereotypes might conjure, it was the quiet Davidian confidence of a people prepared for the corporate Goliath.

Joe Fobister is one of those around the fire. “I can’t describe the feeling,” he says. “It’s like my heart being pulled out of my chest every time I drive into a clearcut.”

The next day I join Fobister as he drives to a clearcut in an area where his parents took him when he was young. “I can’t even imagine what it used to be like,” surveying the naked hillside. “When they look at the forest,” he says of Abitibi, “all they see is money.” In 2002, Abitibi revenues topped $5.1 billion.

Referring to local logging activity, Abitibi spokesperson Marc Osborne says “this is not clearcutting to me.” The company operates under “self-regulated” licenses granted by the province, and replants harvested areas. “We’re not shying away from our responsibility,” Osborne says, noting ongoing communication with Grassy Narrows.

In a 1998 letter, Abitibi wrote to Grassy Narrows: “We realize the way we manage the forest may be considered catastrophic, but we also believe that in the long run it is best for the forest.”

On the way back we cross the Wabigoon River. Fobister says it doesn’t smell like sewage the way it used to. But fish ingest neuro-toxins dumped into the river by a pulp mill upstream in the 1960s and 1970s. Last year, 86% of Grassy Narrows residents tested, showed signs of mercury poisoning.

Grassy Narrows has struggled successfully for fair treatment in the past. Longtime CPJ members will remember the years of work by former staffperson John Olthuis to help the band receive compensation for the ravages of mercury poisoning from a Reed Paper mill upstream in Dryden. As many as 1,000 people showed symptoms of the dreaded “Minamata disease” in the 1960s and 1970s. Pollution meant the English-Wabigoon River had to be closed to commercial fishing. Jobs vanished and welfare dependency increased.

The Grassy Narrows band began seeking compensation in 1970. Finally, helped by Olthuis, a lawyer and researcher, the community received roughly $7 million in 1985 for compensation, job creation and economic development.

Treaties and trees

The ultimate goal of the blockaders is Asubpeeschoseewagong jurisdiction over their customary lands, giving them the ability to protect their boreal homeland and access its wealth and opportunity.

Provincial spokesperson Shawn Stevenson says there is extensive “consultation” with Grassy Narrows on forestry planning, but when pushed on how much say Aboriginal people have, says “[Aboriginal] input on site-specific issues,” is “considered” in forest planning. That’s little comfort to Fobister, who says decision making power lies elsewhere.

The issue of Aboriginal rights to customary lands outside reserves is critical for Grassy Narrows’ hopes of attaining self-reliance. The 1000 people of Grassy Narrows cannot survive off a 14 square mile reserve.

Treaty 3, which applies to Grassy Narrows, makes provision for Indians to “pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing” throughout the area they inhabited (not just on reserve), subject to certain limitations. That’s hard to do in a clearcut. The view of the treaty among blockaders seems to be that it is intended to ensure equitable sharing of resources.

Indian Affairs official James Cutfeet would provide no clarification of Indian Affairs policy on the fundamental matter of treaty rights outside reserves. He would not say whether logging infringes on treaty rights. “It’s a provincial matter,” he says. But the province does not formally recognize the Grassy Narrows Traditional Land Use Area. As this game of jurisdictional hot potato goes on, the trees keep falling.

Squeezed out

On the road into Grassy Narrows, a sign that once warned about forest fires reads “Our future depends on forests. Don’t destroy it! Be careful with Abitibi!”, the final word revised by forest advocates. The sentiment is echoed by non-Aboriginal trapper Don Billard. At blockade headquarters, he pours over maps with webs of roads and networks of blotches on them. The coloured blotches, Billard explains, are areas already cut or slated for cutting. The map is very colourful.

Pointing to a purple blotch where he shares a cabin with a Grassy Narrows trapper, he says, “If they cut here, we’ll have to pretend we’re living in a forest.” He cares about old growth forests and a way of life. “What they’re doing is wrong.”

Billard started out expecting to work co-operatively with Abitibi. They weren’t interested. “They act like they own the forest, as though we are accountable to them.”

With international attention shifting from decimated rainforests to the “emerald halo” of boreal forest atop the globe, forestry practices in Canada will face greater scrutiny. Protection of boreal forests, which constitute a majority of the world’s remaining intact forest, are seen as critical in maintaining carbon balance and averting climate crisis.

Who benefits, who pays?

Youth are central to the blockade. Trailers at the main blockade serve as makeshift high school classrooms. The implicit lesson seems to be that the students’ future is linked to insistence on a new approach to the forest, one not centered around trucks hauling the opportunities of their homeland away while they sit in classrooms preparing for jobs that may not exist.

Economic opportunities are needed badly. Fobister believes a multi-use approach to the forest would provide more jobs through eco-tourism, trapping, wild rice harvesting, fishing, and selective logging. This is part of Fobister’s vision of what Aboriginal access to resources through treaty rights might look like.

The people of Grassy Narrows, who have been on the road since December 3, say they will stay as long as it takes. Only time will tell how this David and Goliath tale will unfold and whether treaties can be made to work for both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people.

CPJ member Will Braun is on sabbatical from his work with Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba. Previously he worked with Mennonite Central Committee.

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