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The Blockade Between Hope and Destruction

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June 21, 2005

The Blockade Between Hope and Destruction

Grassy Narrows, Abitibi Consolidated and the Canadian Governments

by Macdonald Stainsby

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Chief Saskatcheway, who was chief when Treaty Three was signed, appears on flags and other designs. Photo: Macdonald Stainsby
Many years before the arrival of the white man to the land of the Anishinabe Nation, there was a prophecy that when the white people arrived, they would bring the destruction of the forests and the land that sustains the Anishinabe people. When Montréal-based Abitibi Consolidated began logging the land in the late 1980s, the sound of the machines was enough to cause great concern for many elders.


Years of massive clearcutting took a serious toll on the Anishinabe population living in Grassy Narrows. In 1996, members of the nation decided that it was time to try and do something about it.

Initially, Abitibi held open houses and public gatherings in the nearby settlement town of Kenora, Ontario. In an attempt to deal with the loss of forests to Abitibi, some concerned Anishinabe people attended the consultations and tried to dialogue with Abitibi. The concerns of Indians living with the land were not addressed. Several more steps marked a slow but inevitable escalation. When Abitibi held shareholder meetings, some Anishinabe set up pickets outside; letters were written; petitions were signed.

These were either ignored or treated as a minor nuisance. Meanwhile, the centuries-old prophecy took on a deadly accuracy.

For many years, logging went on in the Whiskey Jack forest without generating much concern. People knew the loggers were working there. People tending their traplines would often hitch rides on back roads with logging-truck. At the time, the logging was selective and not deeply damaging; the operations did not directly gouge the land.

When Abitibi introduced clearcut logging practices to the area, however, the devastation to the entire ecosystem was immediately apparent. When a forest is clearcut, nothing is left except a few trees deemed not profitable enough to cut by the corporation. Moss, mushrooms and the soil itself are torn up, exposing giant patches of barren land.

"I'm not against logging," says Joe Fobister of the Anishinabe Nation. "I'm against how they're doing it, and who is doing it, making millions of dollars off of our land and leaving us nothing."

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A shelter near blockade sites, built by volunteers from support groups in Winnipeg and Toronto. Photo: Macdonald Stainsby
"This land is so wealthy. It's our land, and yet we remain the poorest of the poor."

This view is not a monolithic one. The youth, in pushing for more permanent forms of resistance, carried a simple slogan: No negotiations, no compensation, no more clearcutting.

The reason for the first part of the quote is that a) Abitibi wanted to talk while continuing to work in the Whiskey Jack forest, and b) the negotiations that were being proposed involved corporations such as Abitibi, inherently giving them nation-level legitimacy, something that many Anishinabe from Grassy Narrows reject.

Part of the blame, says Fobister, should be laid at the feet of a corrupt band council that acts on behalf of the settler state of Canada.

"The council and the chief make a good living, and get a very good income. In this very poor community, that's why people join the council. They have no real power, but they are scared to risk their funding," he explains. This dynamic — the creation of a de facto ruling comprador class of Indians to implement colonial expropriation of resources — is an all-too-familiar refrain in Nations that resist the assimilationalist policies of Canada and refuse to give up their land to corporations like Abitibi.

Fobister continues, "They are not there for the good of the people, but simply for an income."

The entire Whiskey Jack forest is part of the homeland of the Anishinabe Nation. As Abitibi's work has progressed, the land has been damaged. To date, slightly more than half of the Whiskey Jack forest has been destroyed.

"When they destroy the land, they are attacking my spirituality," explains Fobister. He describes how deer like the grasses that grow in areas recently clearcut, and deposit copious droppings in the area. These droppings enters the water, which the moose drink, causing a brain disease very similar to mad cow disease. Anishinabe People might eat these moose with potential dire effects.

"I used to be comfortable in the bush, but I'm not anymore," says Fobister. "The bears are acting very strangely and are no longer afraid of people; they don't just run away when they see you."

Meeting with people on the reserve, the greatest threat to the health of the nation becomes apparent: clearcut logging causes massive soil erosion, and this in turn releases a normally non-threatening natural form of mercury. This mercury ends up in the water - the water supply of the reserve - as well as in the animals, fish in particular. The Anishinabe nation depends on the land, eating and harvesting the animals and fish as they have for thousands of years.

"Some people have the shakes. [This one elder], his arm shakes badly when he's trying to do something and he can't stop it. You can also lose your sight [from the mercury]. The ones who trap and fish off the land get it especially," explained Ashopenace. "We take it very seriously when someone loses a trapline [to clearcuts] or when more contamination comes in. We hear that more mercury is supposed to come by soon."

Here, one can witness the poisons draining the life out of the people, one at a time. The Canadian and Ontarian governments have done nothing to address the poisoning and the ecological devastation caused by the clearcutting.

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The site of the original blockade, which still stands. Photo: Macdonald Stainsby
Several women from the nation delivered an ultimatum to Abitibi workers inside the Whiskey Jack forest in February 2003. After protests at the Montreal head office of Abitibi did not elicit any response, some members of the community decided to symbolically demonstrate their power to the corporate giant. A plan was launched to blockade the logging roads where Abitibi had access to the forests. Several women from the nation delivered a notice: if you have not evacuated the forest by 5 PM tomorrow, you will be blockaded in and you will not get out.

The workers left.

The Anishinabe youth have been among the strongest voices advocating for the rights of the Nation and the preservation of both the land and their traditional means of using it. They argued persuasively that a one-day symbolic protest and blockade would not be enough to deter Abitibi in any real way. They argued for a complete shut down of the forest roads period, thus bringing an end to logging - at least for the time being.

Ashopenace remarks, "We [the youth] already wanted to do something more, we knew that one day wouldn't be enough. We wanted to do more damage. [Now] we are slowing them down and reducing their profits."

It was only after a year of round-the-clock rotating blockades that Abitibi saw a need to talk to the people who live in Grassy Narrows.

"We fed them and tried to get them to relax, but you could see they were still very nervous to be here," explains Ashopenace.

He describes the corporate representatives' defence of their logging practices: "Abitibi said they are trying to provide economic development for the community." He says, "It was hard to hear the debate because the youth were openly laughing at how ridiculous the arguments were. The argument was that Abitibi doesn't have obligations because the treaty [Treaty 3] was between Canada and Anishinabe and had nothing to do with them." When it comes to responsibility for the poisoning of the community, their food supply, the animals and the land itself, "Abitibi blames a paper mill that comes out of Dryden [approximately 200 kilometers away from Grassy Narrows] and says 'you need to talk with them.'"

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has the official responsibility to uphold environmental regulations. While MNR holds jurisdiction, regulations allow for almost all mining, forestry, oil drilling and similar resource extraction work is "assessed" by the very same company that wishes to dig, drill, cut and so on.

In Canada, the fox is in charge of the henhouse.

Chief Saskatcheway, previous to the Indian Act, signed treaty 3 from the traditional, non-hierarchical political system that many nations including the Anishinabe practiced before the imposition of the band council system. It was not interpreted or understood by the nation — who then decided on such matters by consensus - as a surrender of title or land. To this day, the elders maintain that they would not have signed any such treaty.

The legacy of Treaty 3 is still disputed. Yet, not even the Canadian government's own interpretation of the treaty is honored. Members of the Nation are trying to challenge the rights of Ontario, Abitibi or Canada itself to claim the Nation's land for themselves.

Fobister speaks about dealing with Abitibi about this challenge: "They are afraid that if we can control our land, if we can prove it is ours and always has been, that this will mean the same thing elsewhere, that then other nations will follow."

"I told them that that's their problem, not mine," he adds.

The idea of having talks at all with Abitibi— rather than the state of Canada—continues to be problematic. Many nationals point out that even talking to Abitibi at a table that includes both the nations of Anishinabe and Canada confers on a forestry corporation the same status as a nation. The only legitimate talks, say many Anishinabe, would take place between the governments who make laws.

But for the Canadian government, it appears that Nation to Nation talks between the Anishinabe and Canada must be avoided at all costs. If Abitibi were accountable to the law of the land as negotiated between Nations, it would establish the de facto existence of the Anishinabe as a Nation. Judging by the government's across-the-board intransigence in sovereignty negotiations, this would be a worst case scenario for the colonial state. But talks have continued, meetings still get held and money is even accepted in the short term from Abitibi, in exchange for continuation of operations.

"Those who want a deal are operating for today, just to get the money, and not even that much money really," explains Judy Da Silva. "It is the youth and others who blockade that are thinking long term, thinking about the future, about preserving the forest, our traditions with the land and our way of life."

Roberta Keesick makes the case more bluntly.

"The government wants us off the land, they want us to be assimilated," she states. "They don't want us to be who we are."

Ashopenace explains the dynamic.

"With the destruction of the forests, it's our whole way of life and culture that's getting sick." He describes areas in the Whiskey Jack forest that might hold the key to the ancient history of his people.

"[In the Whiskey Jack Forest] there are some historical rock paintings that are thousands of years old. These are in areas we call virgin land. If Abitibi continues doing what they are doing, with their roads, their cutting and so on, we might lose these."

His assessment is severe.

"What Canada is doing is ignoring us when we try to bring attention to how our rights are being violated. The world needs to open their eyes as to how Canada really is."

Many say there are only three options to deal with the social problems and poverty of the Nation. First, people could accept the clearcutting as "economic development", and try to secure temporary work while the land and their connection to it is decimated. Second, they could try to develop eco-tourism as a means of using their knowledge of the land to bring in much needed dollars, but at the risk of commercializing their own history and reducing themselves once again to a secondary role in their own woods and waterways. The third option is for things to remain as they are, with people living subsistence lives with no jobs and little income.

A fourth option defies orthodoxy, but is becoming more appealing as the situation deteriorates with little recourse for those stuck in a colonial system of governance. The people could take control of their lands back from the Canadian state and assert their right to self-determination in accordance with prior treaties and international law on the preservation of National culture. This fourth option involves nothing short of decolonizing the Nation of Anishinabe.

For anyone who visits, it is clear that the process is already underway.

One of the most remarkable changes to come from the last few years of blockades has been the increased self-confidence of the Anishinabe people. By taking matters into their own hands, they have taken back a modicum of control over their own destiny.

The area near where the main blockade was originally established is now a common gathering place for many purposes, whether praying at the sacred fire in the wigwam or to roast wieners on the large open firepit a few feet from the site of the first blockade.

I was sitting by that firepit one night with an eight-year old girl from the Nation, and I asked her a few questions.

"How do you feel about the blockade?"

"I feel good," she answered.

What do you want Abitibi and the government to do?"

"I want them to stop logging."

"What do you think will happen if they don't stop logging?"

"Then my mommy will have to keep on warring," she said.

Then abruptly, she got out of the chair and ran off to play with other kids and her puppy. As the sun set near the blockade, the roar of the machines of Abitibi remained absent from the Anishinabe Whiskey Jack forest for another day. And the sun always rises again.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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