Academic journal article Human Organization

Re(con)figuring Alliances: Place Membership, Environmental Justice, and the Remaking of Indigenous-Environmentalist Relationships in Canada's Boreal Forest

Academic journal article Human Organization

Re(con)figuring Alliances: Place Membership, Environmental Justice, and the Remaking of Indigenous-Environmentalist Relationships in Canada's Boreal Forest

Article excerpt

Critical observers of the international environmental movement have found that indigenous-environmentalist alliances have often been predicated upon reproductions of an asymmetrical political status quo, thereby perpetuating indigenous peoples' systemic disadvantages and predestining promising partnerships for eventual disintegration. Spotlighting the relationship between Grassy Narrows First Nation and Rainforest Action Network, this article describes how indigenous-environmentalist alliances are being constructively re(con)figured in the context of recent anti-clearcutting activism in northwestern Ontario. An analysis of the positive interpersonal relationships cited by participants as key to the coalition's success reveals the significance of (1) a social setting conducive to imagining membership in a diverse community united by an emplaced interest in boreal forest protection and (2) a transformed conceptual framework that redefines the environment to include human activities and concerns. I argue that this dynamic socio-discursive context not only facilitated the development of a strong alliance and an effective conservation campaign, but may also ultimately empower indigenous communities to participate in environmental protection on terms that are closer to their own. When environmentalists refigure the categories that guide their relationships to the places they seek to protect, they also reconfigure the power structures underpinning their alliances with the indigenous groups who call those places home.

Key words: environmental alliances, environmental justice, indigenous environmental activism, Native North America, place membership

Refigure: To Give New Meaning or Reconceptualize

Reconfigure: To Rearrange or Restructure

The trans-Canada highway is the only major thoroughfare connecting dozens of Canadian cities and towns. Stopping its steady flow of travelers and truckers is a big deal. On July 13, 2006, Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activists from Grassy Narrows First Nation joined forces with Rainforest Action Network's (RAN) direct-action environmentalists to block the highway just north of Kenora, Ontario. For 43 months, Grassy Narrows residents had maintained a blockade on a logging road near their semi-remote reserve community - located 50 scenic miles to the north - that effectively prevented the passage of trucks and equipment, but industrial logging continued unabated in parts of the First Nation's traditional territory. The trans-Canada event succeeded in returning public attention to Grassy Narrows' cause (Bell 2008). Altogether, around 1 00 protestors participated in the daylong blockade. A 30-foot tripod was erected in the highway at a strategically chosen site along the route taken by trucks carrying felled trees to one of Kenora's active mills. A RAN activist and a banner calling on spectators to "Save Grassy Narrows Boreal Forest" dangled from the formation (CBC 2006) (Figure 1).

Members of Grassy Narrows First Nation began publicly opposing industrial logging in the late 1990s. Residents responded to increases in logging operations' intensity and proximity to their 14 square mile reserve with a growing sense of alarm. They were troubled by the threatened destruction of their landbase and subsistence culture and argued that the ongoing clearcutting violated their treaty-guaranteed right to harvest resources throughout their 2,500 square mile traditional territory.1 For several years, they expressed their concerns through conventional channels of letter writing and peaceful protest but felt they received no substantive response. By the end of 2002, a core group of dedicated activists had generated enough enthusiasm within their community to launch a blockade.

In May of 2003, I arrived in northwestern Ontario with the goal of learning as much as I could about the blockade at Grassy Narrows and the cultural, political, and historical factors that inspired it. As my ethnographic project progressed, I got to know dozens of Anishinaabe activists. …

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