PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Aboriginal Forests and Paper Plates by peaceprobe
June 11, 2008, 6:24 pm
Filed under: First Nations People

Pot luck meals are still heavily reliant on paper plates.  It saves washing dishes or automatic dish washers but doesn’t do much for the trees.  I live in Fort Frances, Ontario, three miles from a major paper mill, AbitibiBowater Inc.  Day and night, year round, semi loads of timber scream past our house on the way to the storage field on the bank of the Rainy River in this border town, more logs than I imagined existed before I moved here.  But these are not good times for paper mills.  They have been closing all over Northwestern Ontario and Quebec.  Either there are not enough pot lucks or the quest for green living is catching on with a little help from cyber technology.  

Ten years ago when I first started coming to rest my activist muscles in this region, our Christian Peacemaker Teams office in Canada was contacted by Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) about the disappearing forests in their ancient lands.  Their appeals to Canadian government agencies had yielded little hope.  The community was discussing the possibility of a major blockade to stop the flow of logging.  Would CPT consider joining the effort as a third party to provide a presence in case of violence?

Yesterday, June 3, 2008 AbitibiBowater announced  plans to stop logging operations in the Whiskey Jack forest, the region claimed by Grassy Narrows.  The announcement said that the company had little choice but to look elsewhere for its fibre needs because the province of Ontario has entered into a new four year consultation process with Grassy Narrows First Nation on the future management of the forest.

As Dorothy and I returned from our visit to Grassy Narrows ten years ago we discovered that our little red Toyota Tercel was followed by the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).  The next day a police car, perhaps for the first time ever, drove past our cabin on Off Lake.  Later on the same day I was followed by a police car when I went to town.  All of this signalled to me that we had touched some kind of nerve just by visiting Grassy Narrows.  But more than the police following me, what struck me about that first visit was the tired, sad  faces of people at Grassy Narrows.  

On December 2, 2002 the First Nation of 1000 Anishinabe people, more than 100 miles north of Fort Frances and the cross border town of International Falls, MN  began a blockade on a logging road adjacent to Grassy Narrows.  The community school was moved to the blockade site.  A sacred fire was started and during the nightly vigil bannock and other tasty treats were shared around the fire.  Stories from the old days when life was routinely sustained by the plants, herbs, and animals in the forest were told and retold.  Of course, this was before the people were moved into more modern settled life in the 1960s.  It was before their lakes were poisoned by mercury from timber mills upstream.  And it was before the mental and spiritual diseases attendant to modernization processes had set in.  

The blockade was a signal that the years of social turmoil were going to end.  Blockades are body based acts of defiance.  On several occasions angry words were exchanged between Grassy Narrows people and truck drivers as the logging trucks were forced to turn around.  But generally the blockade served its first purpose, creating momentum and space for long overdue talks with the government  

When I visited Grassy Narrows First Nation years later I met a unified community with a sense of momentum nurtured in hope for the future.  Youth groups had been formed to confront trappers or hunters lacking permission for access to the surrounding 4000 hectares of forest that the community claims.  Women’s groups had begun to successfully deliver eviction notices to loggers and miners who arrived unannounced and without appropriate consultation.  Other community leaders were engaged in sustained discussions and negotiations with government agencies.  Aboriginal communities from throughout the region and beyond were now watching Grassy Narrows and learning from their struggle for land rights.  

Yesterday’s announcement that one of the region’s most powerful timber crunchers would cease all logging on forests claimed by Grassy Narrows is another pillar for a future of hope and self reliance.  This is effectively a moratorium set in motion on timber cutting until a comprehensive covenant with the government based on long forgotten treaty rights can be agreed upon.  The breakthrough to a memorandum of understanding follows six months of discussions between Grassy Narrows First Nation and former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who was retained to advise Ontario Minister of Natural Resources, Donna Cansfield. 

The agreement brings temporary security to Grassy Narrows and was achieved through a combination of direct action and sustained negotiations.  Direct action on the part of aboriginal communities sometimes with the support of outside groups is increasingly visible across Canada.  In Grassy Narrows we can identify the ingredients of success.  

1.   A major event, the blockade set in motion a series of movements towards health within the community.  Years after the actions to block a logging road began, an internalized blockade of  militancy helps to sustain the unity of Grassy Narrows. 

2.   The emerging unity of purpose and vision in the First Nation galvanized by the blockade expanded to include elders, youth, children, women and middle aged people who found a way to recreate a community of purpose.  This blockade created a space to remember tradition, religious conviction and the relevance of the local struggle to environmental concerns for the entire planet. 

3.   The openness to tactical innovation in the direct action program, including the special tasks for women, youth and others, gave space for many to participate.  

4.  A commitment on the part of leadership to nonviolence in the spirit of campaigns in Canada and around the world gave a sense of connectedness to the whole earth with particular emphasis on Turtle Island. 

5.  Leadership sustained a consistent eye on the long term need for successful negotiations and understood well the temptation to short term gain at the expense of long term security. The framework of being a treaty people provided an impetus for an authentic covenant, a term that more accurately describes the historic aboriginal understanding of Treaty.

6.. Recognition of the role that paper plates, newsprint, copy paper, and other timber products play in modern life provided a way for auxiliary supporters like CPT, Rainforest Action Network, environmental bodies, human rights groups and churches from outside the community to connect to the struggle.

The story at Grassy Narrows is not finished.  In many ways it is now a new story about a community of hope that has replaced the neighbourhood of victims.  The future may require additional stages of direct action to lubricate the processes of negotiations that bring the trees, the animals, the herbs – all things – into a responsible covenant that acknowledges the Creator of all life.  


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