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How an Indigenous Community Defeated a Logging Giant

Grassy Narrows ran the longest-running blockade in North American history to stop logging on its land, but that wasn't all it took.
 
 
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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 cultural heritage.

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 violence.

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 year.

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 forests.

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 native language.

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.

 
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