[R-G] How an Indigenous Community Defeated a Logging Giant

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at resist.ca
Sat Jul 5 15:23:05 MDT 2008


How an Indigenous Community Defeated a Logging Giant

By Jessica Bell, AlterNet Posted on June 23, 2008, Printed on June 26, 2008

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 

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 

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 

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.

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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