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How a Lawsuit Could Turn Canada's First Nations' Relationship With Government Upside Down

After decades of abuse and neglect by the government, justice may be on the way for the Grassy Narrows community.

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“They have given a really strong foundation that has resulted in what we see today in this decision,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller. A tar sands campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network, Thomas-Muller grew up as a Mathais Colomb Cree in Winnipeg, joining the Native Youth Movement at 17 where he began working with Grassy Narrows.

Thomas-Muller says the case of Grassy Narrows represents a sophisticated new strategy: a collaboration between environmental and economic justice movements, NGOs, and indigenous solidarity groups across North America, using a variety of tactics, including civil disobedience, education campaigning, and legal challenges. “What Grassy [Narrows] represents is one of those catalyst moments in our contemporary history between Indian and white relations in this country.”

“Not only was it a decision for the people of Grassy, but it was a victory for all First Nations across Canada,” he says. Resource extraction industries have disproportionately affected the health and livelihoods of First Nations communities across the country. Whether it is the tar sands in Alberta that Thomas-Muller is now focused on fighting, or the mining, hydroelectric, or timber industries, native communities are on the front lines almost everywhere in Canada. Changing the calculus of how First Nations can control what industry can do on their lands is huge.

Robert Janes, the lawyer representing Grassy Narrows trappers, agrees that the decision has pretty big implications for First Nations across Canada. “This case doesn’t just apply to logging. It indirectly applies to all major resource development that could interfere with their treaty rights.” That includes mining, hydroelectric dams, transmission lines, and more. People in Grassy Narrows are hoping the court ruling will be a spark that ignites change across Ontario, says Janes, like the 1970s decision over hydro that led to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement being signed with the Cree nation and the Quebec and federal governments.

“The courts have become more and more direct and prescriptive in their decisions because they too are becoming frustrated that the governments aren’t following certain court decisions,” says Russell Diabo, a First Nations policy consultant who has worked closely with the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in Quebec. “If that trend continues I think it’s going to become harder for the executive branches of the government to ignore.”

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has appealed the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal and Robert Janes says that the case will likely be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. This could drag out the issue for another five years. Janes believes that the government wants to preserve the status quo with regards to logging, but the likelihood of reaching a negotiated solution, the desired outcome for Grassy Narrows, will depend on the newly elected provincial government.

After a long legacy of government decisions that negatively affected the community, including residential schools, hydro flooding, mercury poisoning, relocation, and now the destruction of their forests from clear-cut logging, it’s easy to see why people in Grassy Narrows are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Andrew Keewatin, who initiated the legal case over a decade ago, is also skeptical. “It will be interesting to see if they’ll honour the decision now,” he says. “Most likely they’ll try to find a way around it.” Keewatin, known as “Shoon” in Grassy Narrows, teaches traditional practices to the reserve’s young people, such as building log cabins, snowshoe making, fishing, and trapping. “Trapping is no longer a means of livelihood for people on the reserve. It’s more of a favourite pastime,” he says. Life on welfare has taught trappers to limit their activity to the reserve, he explains. But he is looking towards the future. He notes that the Trappers Council is looking into ways of selling furs directly to tourists and that some businesses in South Korea have shown some interest in buying their otter furs.

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