[Correction: We incorrectly identified the photographer in our print issue. The correct attribution is: Jon Schledewitz,redlineagency.com].
GRASSY NARROWS—Back in 2002, a small group of Ojibwe youth set up a simple roadblock of a few trees on a remote section of Highway 671 in northwestern Ontario. When a logging truck approached, two of them stood in front of it and brought it to a halt. The blockaders, from the nearby Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve (Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek), informed the driver logging on their territory was no longer permitted. After some argument, the truck turned around. That incident marked the beginning of Canada’s longest-running blockade, which celebrated its 11th year last December.
For years the community had asked the Ontario government to respect their concerns about the increase in clear-cut logging on their traditional territory, but nothing changed. Their territory, 2,500 square kilometres of lakes, rivers and forests north of Kenora, had been the home of the Grassy Narrows people for as long as anyone knew. Despite the intrusions of industry and settlers over the last few decades, the community has managed to continue living close to the land. Many hunt and fish as a primary source of sustenance, and are emotionally and spiritually tied to their homeland—the source of their history and identity.
The original blockade, near Slant Lake, was little more than a stick with a sign on it on a logging road, guarded day and night by members of the community. Soon, however, a school for teaching cultural knowledge sprang up, an enclosure for the sacred fire was built and the blockade became the site of a cultural and political rebirth for the community. Once winter set in, the physical roadblock was only maintained occasionally, but it expanded into a larger campaign that took the battle to government and AbitibiBowater offices in Kenora.
In 2008, the American paper company Boise announced it would only buy material sourced from the Grassy Narrows area if it was harvested according to sustainable forestry standards. That same year, AbitibiBowater announced it would stop logging in the area. In 2011, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the province could not authorize logging in Grassy Narrows’ traditional hunting and fishing territories according to Treaty 3, the agreement signed between the Ojibwe Nation and the Federal government in 1873.
But in 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, opening the door for further clear-cutting. This past December, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government announced a ten-year forest management plan for the Whiskey Jack forest, which encompasses Grassy Narrows’ traditional territories, permitting extensive logging. This was an especially bitter pill for the community to swallow, given that Wynne had visited the reserve in 2012 as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and promised to improve relations between the government and the First Nation.
Weyerhaeuser, a forest products multinational, has the most to gain from clear-cutting in the Whiskey Jack. According to their public position statement on the Grassy Narrows issue, their state-of-the-art lumber mill “depends on a long-term, sustainable supply of hardwood from the Whiskey Jack forest for about thirty percent of its requirements.” The company claims that they contribute $60 million a year and 1,000 jobs to the regional economy, and in this context, Wynne’s plan is supposed to balance economic interests with respect for “recreational and heritage values.” In the current political atmosphere of economic anxiety, however, economic growth is weighed heavily against the health of a small aboriginal community.
The plan was promoted by Wynne’s Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti, who in November 2013 claimed “there are no planned harvest blocks located within the Grassy Narrows’ self-identified Traditional Land Use Area.” This turned out to be false, with 34 of the plan’s cut blocks clearly falling within the community’s territory.
Craig Benjamin, an Amnesty International campaigner for the rights of Indigenous peoples, spoke to The Dominion via email. “The whole ideology that pits Indigenous rights versus jobs is fundamentally misleading,” said Benjamin. “The clash that exists today is the product of government decisions that denied the people of Grassy Narrows a real and meaningful voice in the management of their own lands. This clash could have been avoided if their rights had been respected from the beginning.”
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), when asked how essential the government deemed the community’s consent, pointed out that “planned harvest operations nearest to Grassy Narrows have been deferred to the second phase of planning (2017-2022) to allow for ongoing discussions to continue with the community.” Nonetheless, Wynne’s plan calls for the expansion and acceleration of logging over the long run.
The MNR insists that it has made a “considerable effort” to include the community in their preparation of the plan. However, an independent forest audit released in 2010, commissioned according to the province’s own regulations, reviewed forest management of the Whiskey Jack and concluded that the only way to resolve the dispute was to relinquish “significant authority to the First Nation to manage portions of the Whiskey Jack Forest according to the desires of the GNFN [Grassy Narrows First Nation] community.”
The Whiskey Jack is a massive area, twice the size of Prince Edward Island: 10,000 square kilometres of forests composed of economically valuable species of Jack Pine, spruce, poplar and birch. Due to clear-cutting, less than 10% of the Whiskey Jack is mature forest over 60 years old. Within Grassy Narrows’ territory, 75% had already been clear-cut when logging stopped in 2008.
J.B. Fobister, a spokesman for Grassy Narrows, said that logging was not always as destructive as it is today, (clear-cutting was introduced in the mid-1970s). In addition, said Fobister, loggers used to get on well with the community, living off the land in camps with their families. Fobister recalled loggers inviting members of the community for meals and movies when he was a child. At that time, logging was more selective and mature forests were left intact.
The community’s struggle to have its traditional territories respected is a matter of survival. In 1963, the government persuaded them to relocate their reserve to a more accessible location where they would be provided with modern amenities like electricity, indoor plumbing and an on-reserve school. Irreparable harm came to the community almost immediately.
From 1962 to 1970, Dryden Chemicals dumped roughly 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the Wabigoon-English River, effluent from their paper processing operation. The mercury was absorbed by the fish, which were eaten as a staple by the Grassy Narrows community. Although ordered by the provincial government to cease dumping mercury in 1970, mercury poisoning, which causes severe physiological and neurological damage, had already begun to devastate the community. To this day, some children are born with birth defects.
In addition, access to modern amenities also brought modern crises: unemployment now reaches 80% on the reserve, and alcoholism, violence and suicide have become widespread problems. According to documentary filmmaker Bob Rodgers and community member Ivy Keewatin, in an article published in the Literary Review of Canada in 2009, their way of life before being moved to the reserve was much healthier and happier: in the 1950s, 90% of deaths were due to natural causes and only 10% to violence or suicide. In the 1970s, a decade after moving to the reserve, those numbers were practically inverted: 80% of deaths were attributable to violence, 20% to natural causes.
In spite of these hardships, Grassy Narrows has seen many victories and moments of bravery. J.B. Fobister's favourite memory is of a night when he was manning the blockade with two boys around 10 or 12 years old. Fobister decided to take his truck and get some food, and told the boys to stay and tend the fire. “I guess while I was gone these two little boys were discussing what they're going to do if a truck had come,” Fobister recounted.
“They start planning and they agreed, ‘Well, we said we're going to protect the land and that's what we're going to do.’ It was kind of late evening, it was getting dark, I'm on my way back and my lights were on and I guess they saw the lights coming. They jumped into action and I see these two little boys holding these sticks like a spear and they jumped in front of me. It was something to see those two little boys. They thought they could stop a truck.”
It was this kind of idealism from the young people of Grassy Narrows that started the original blockade. Over the years it has changed place and shape from the first tree in the road, but it has remained effective in keeping logging off their land, despite the persistence of forestry multinationals and successive governments.
Steven Henry Martin is a social worker and writer out of Peterborough, Ontario.