[R-G] How an Indigenous Community Defeated a Logging Giant
mstainsby at resist.ca
Sat Jul 5 15:23:05 MDT 2008
How an Indigenous Community Defeated a Logging Giant
By Jessica Bell, AlterNet Posted on June 23, 2008, Printed on June 26, 2008
It was below zero degrees Fahrenheit on the night of Dec. 2, 2002, when
sisters and young indigenous mothers Chrissy and Bonnie Swain from the
Grassy Narrows First Nation drove from their reserve, located in the
southern fringe of the vast Boreal Forest in northern Ontario, to the
logging road just a few miles from their home.
The sisters felled trees over the road to protest unwanted logging on
their land by Abitibi Consolidated. They then headed home, afraid their
father would be mad at them. Instead, he was proud. Their protest was
the spark that ignited their small community of 1,000 to launch a
sustained direct-action campaign to stop logging.
Located about 250 miles north of the Minnesota border, Grassy Narrows
First Nation's traditional lands span approximately 2,500 square miles.
Throughout the 20th century the Ontario government has granted logging
companies rights to log on Grassy Narrows' land, even though the permit
violates the Canadian government's 1873 treaty agreement with the
community and has been actively opposed by First Nation members. In
recent years the logging -- currently being done by Abitibi Consolidated
-- has intensified, often being conducted around the clock. By 2002,
approximately 50 percent of the marketable wood on Grassy Narrows land
had been logged.
Roberta Keesick, a Grassy Narrows blockader, grandmother and trapper,
described the severity of logging in an interview with Rainforest Action
Network campaigner David Sone in 2005:
The clear-cutting of the land and the destruction of the forest is an
attack on our people. The land is the basis of who we are. Our culture
is a land-based culture, and the destruction of the land is the
destruction of our culture. And we know that is in the plans. The
logging companies don't want us on the land; they want us out of the way
so they can take the resources. We can't allow them to carry on with
this cultural genocide.
From Dec. 2, 2002, onward, members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation
established a permanent encampment on the road and turned back all
Abitibi logging trucks. The reserve's only school moved to the blockade
site and conducted classes there for a summer, and the community began
pulling in outside supporters, including national and international
environmental and human rights groups, to campaign with them. In
response, Abitibi transferred its logging operations to a more remote
section of Grassy Narrows territory.
This year, Grassy Narrows secured another win. On June 3,
AbitibiBowater, the largest newsprint company in the world and the only
one still logging on Grassy Narrows land, announced it would leave
Grassy Narrows effective immediately. The company had the license to log
on most of Grassy Narrows' territory until 2024. The victory sends a
message that sustained, peaceful direct-action campaigns are capable of
yielding powerful results.
Of course, this campaign took a lot of work. Prior to the blockade,
Grassy Narrows advocated for decades using more traditional means of
dissent, such as meetings with the government, letter writing and
protests, before escalating to direct action. In Ontario, some Grassy
Narrows members maintained their blockade and worked internally to
ensure that the community remained united and strong in its opposition
to corporate logging. They also undertook the crucial tasks of
empowering the community's youth to take action and of reviving their
Amnesty International produced rigorous research reports and lobbied the
Ontario government and the United Nations to respect the right of
indigenous communities to say no to resource extraction. Local
solidarity groups provided direct support, and Christian Peacemaker
Teams maintained a monitoring presence to reduce the risk of racist
Environmental groups led by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a
sustained direct-action campaign against corporate buyers of wood and
paper products from the region. Logging company Boise Inc. agreed to
stop purchasing from the region in February 2008 after RAN linked wood
sourced from Grassy Narrows to paper being sold in Boise-owned office
supply chains Office Max and Grand & Toy, and organized dozens of
actions outside the stores. Boise had been Abitibi's top purchaser of
Grassy Narrows soft wood.
In fact, peaceful direct action was a defining trademark of the Grassy
Narrows campaign, which included the longest-running blockade in North
American history. A turning point in the campaign was a daylong
direct-action blockade of the TransCanada Highway on July 13, 2006,
along the route used by logging trucks as they carried wood logged in
Grassy Narrows to the Weyerhaeuser mill in the nearby town of Kenora. As
part of the action, one woman locked herself to a Weyerhaeuser logging
truck carrying Grassy Narrows wood. Another suspended herself from a
metal tripod in the middle of the highway. The action put Grassy Narrows
back in the headlines and back into the consciousness of a public whose
attention to the issue had begun to wane. Staff working for the premier
of Ontario cited the TransCanada Highway action as having as much
influence on the government's response to indigenous rights and
environmental protection as any other activity organized in Ontario that
Not only will this victory result in the protection of two and a half
million acres of forest, an area more than three times as large as
Yosemite National Park, it represents a powerful step forward in the
movement for indigenous self-determination and the right of First
Nations to control industrial activities on their lands and say "no" to
colonialism. Canada's resource-rich Boreal Forest is the second-largest
unlogged forest on Earth.
For Grassy Narrows, the arrival of Abitibi was just the latest in a
series of incursions by the Ontario government and corporations whose
impact has constituted a full-out attempt to annihilate the Grassy
Narrows culture and strip the community of its land and resources.
Like most indigenous communities in Canada, Grassy Narrows has been
through many traumas over the past century, including forced relocation
of children away from their families into white-governed residential
schools, which stripped many of their language, family and culture. This
was followed by long-term mercury poisoning of community members through
the contamination of fishing areas by the Reed Pulp Mill company;
flooding of wild rice harvesting sites, sacred grounds and burial sites
for hydroelectric damming operations; and clear-cut logging of their
These traumas have caused many social, health and economic problems, as
well as the near devastation of the culture. Grassy Narrows exhibits the
signs of distress that have become typical of First Nation communities
across Canada. Indigenous people, as compared to any other racial or
cultural group in Canada, have the lowest life expectancies, highest
infant mortality rates, substandard and overcrowded housing, lower
education and employment levels, and the highest incarceration rates.
But the people of Grassy Narrows and First Nations across Canada are
fighting back and winning against the external assaults on their people.
They are actively reclaiming the land from which the strength of their
communities flows. Understandably, the resurgence in First Nations'
advocacy to regain control over their land and community has been
closely intertwined with a cultural revival, where communities are also
reclaiming their identity, their culture, their ceremonies and their
Keesick said in an interview with CBC radio on June 5 that the victory
gives Grassy Narrows new hope to claim its future: "It gives us hope
that we're being listened to. It gives our young people a purpose in
life. With our persistence, we've been able to accomplish this, and it
definitely encourages us to keep on fighting and standing up and
speaking and reaching out."
The success in Grassy Narrows also provides inspiration and hope to the
dozens of other communities across Canada -- from the Haida in British
Columbia to the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation in
northern Ontario -- who are fighting for the right to regain control
over their territories from the government.
Indeed, the snowballing movement for self-determination is forcing
Canada's provincial and federal governments to acknowledge that
piecemeal change is not enough and that systemic change to address
indigenous rights needs to happen now. Their collective impact has
forced Canada's Supreme Court to set a rapid succession of new legal
precedents requiring governments to accommodate First Nations' interests
when determining what activities can take place on their lands. The
groundswell has also forced politicians to begin rewriting laws,
including Ontario's draconian Mining Act, which allows companies to
stake mining claims anywhere in the province without any prior notice.
The resurgence of indigenous people power is global. On Sept. 13, 2007,
the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was
adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. The declaration affirms indigenous
land rights and the right of self-determination. The only four
dissenting countries were the United States, New Zealand, Australia and
Canada. The Grassy Narrows campaign is a powerful example of how First
Nations and we, civil society, can take matters into our own hands and
implement human rights for all when governments fail to do so.
Meanwhile, Grassy Narrows leaders are currently engaged in negotiations
with the Ontario government to ensure the government does not grant
logging rights to another company but instead issues a moratorium on all
logging until control over the land is restored to the community. Until
that time, they continue to maintain and expand the blockade, now in its
sixth year, and the site has turned into a cultural hub and a symbol of
their continued resistance.
As former organizer for Rainforest Action Network's Old Growth Campaign,
Jessica Bell worked to support Grassy Narrows. Now she works for the
California Food and Justice Coalition and volunteers for Direct Action
to Stop the War.
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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