Treaties, Trees and Sharing: Report from the Grassy Narrows Blockade

Article excerpt

It was past midnight as we stood around the bonfire beside a logging road in northwestern Ontario. I'd never been to a blockade, before. It was a one-night "roving blockade," part of a high-stakes game of car-and-mouse between the Anishinaabe people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) and Montreal-based logging giant Abitibi Consolidated.

As we awaited the loggers -- who haul at night on various roads leading to the pulp-and-paper mill 80 kilometres south in Kenora -- there was a heightened energy in the air. But instead of the Okaesque militancy that might inspire stereotypes, it was the quiet, Davidian confidence of a people prepared for the corporate Goliath.

As we stood in the night forest, one could imagine sections of the daily paper scattered on a coffee table somewhere in suburbia, the product of trees taken earlier from clearcuts near the blockade; and, in New York or Montreal, an investor checking the price of his Abitibi shares, oblivious to the fire burning beside that remote road and in the hearts of the people there.

The people of Grassy Narrows have grown tired of watching logging trucks haul away the bounty of their 2,500-square-mile Traditional Land Use Area. Joe Fobister is one of those around the fire. "I can't describe the feeling," he says. "It's like my heart being pulled out of my chest, every time I drive into a clearcut."

The people of Grassy Narrows are taking action, and have inserted themselves into the decision making in their boreal homeland. The next day I join Fobister as he drives past the main blockade to a large clearcut in an area where his parents took him for months at a time when he was young. "I can't even imagine anymore what it used to be like," he says.

He surveys the scene silently as his grandson, Jeremy, climbs a pile of freshly cut logs. "When they look at the forest," he says of Ahitibi, "all they see is money." In 2002, Abitibi revenues topped $5.1 billion.

A menacing machine, with claws, blades and an evident appetite for trees sits on the naked hillside that was once home to birds, animals and a proud family Empty oil pails litter the site.

Abitibi Speaks

Referring to logging activity in the area, Abitibi spokesperson Marc Osborne says, "This is not clearcutting to me." The company operates under "self-regulated" licenses granted by the province, and replants harvested areas. "Sustainability" is the saving watchword - the same word used, nowadays, to describe most every industrial resource extraction.

"We're not shying away from our responsibility," Osborne says, noting ongoing communication with Grassy Narrows. In a June, 1998 letter, Abitibi wrote to Grassy Narrows: "We realize the way we manage the forest may be considered catastrophic, but we also believe that in the long run it is best for the forest. If the forest were left with no cutting or with no large scale catastrophe, it would become old and would not renew itself."

On the way back from the harvest area we cross the Wabigoon River. Fobister says it doesn't smell like sewage the way it used to. But beneath the tranquil surface of the river, fish ingest neuro-toxins dumped into the river by a pulp mill upstream in the sixties and seventies, Last year, 86 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents tested showed signs of mercury poisoning.

In addition to mercury and logging, flooding and water fluctuations from a hydroelectric dam built in the fifties still wreak havoc with fragile shoreline ecosystems. At low water, bones from eroded graves have been exposed.

Then, in 1963, a government-engineered community relocation rattled the social foundation of the people and brought them with in easier reach of the Indian Agent, whose programs had no more success there than anywhere else. Predictably dependence, welfare and cultural decay increased. After hearing this litany recited, I barely dare even to ask about residential schools. …