From Blockades to Moratorium to Land Declaration: How Grassy Narrows has Banned Industrial Forestry on their Territory

The Blockade

On December 3rd, 2002, two sisters from Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) Anishinabek wanted to stop clear-cut logging on their territory. After trying to fall some trees on the road and a broken down vehicle, their father came to help. Robert Williams stayed behind while everyone else went home that night, blocking the first logging truck of a decades-long movement.

Dozens more people from Grassy Narrows showed up shortly after to blockade the icy road, laying their bodies on the line to tell log-truck drivers to go home. In order to keep the trucks from going onto their homelands during the early hours of the morning, land defenders braved cold snaps in the dark of the night, with temperatures dipping below -30 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, the sacred fire kept them warm as they successfully kept fallers, bunchers, and trucks out of their territory.

Joe B. Fobister noted how clear-cutting wasn’t because of forestry companies coming and logging the Whiskey Jack Forest Management Area, but rather with the provincial government: 

“The government of Ontario has been behind every problem we’ve had. They allowed the dumping of mercury into our waterways, and now they are allowing the logging companies to clear-cut the land. We still depend on the land… We have to put an end to the practice of clear-cutting. It’s harmful to the environment, it’s harmful to the animals, it’s harmful to the people… and the forests. I don’t think they plan to stop until every inch of forest is gone.

This is the problem with a resource-based economy in a settler colonial nation. Viewing the land as an object to be exploited for profit creates a culture where, the more you take, the more you are rewarded. What do you get when you combine this recipe for environmental destruction with disrespectful othering of Indigenous Peoples, treating them as less than human? Environmental racism. 

If Ontario, with Canada behind their backs, had their way, they would have taken every inch of forest in Grassy Narrows’ Treaty 3 territory, bulldozing over their sovereignty for the sake of profit.

Taina Da Silva puts it more eloquently:

[Grassy Narrows is] where I grew up understanding Indigenous sovereignty as stewardship of the land and challenging environmental racism. We are under constant pressure because Canada and Ontario want our land — land in the mineral-rich boreal forest that we rely on. However, many First Nations are part of the same colonial project that Grassy Narrows faces every day.

The Moratorium

The land defenders were successful in keeping out industrial forestry in 2002. Grassy Narrows has since been successful in asserting their sovereignty, and now have a signed moratorium with the Ontario government to halt all clear-cut logging on their territory. The moratorium, established in 2017 and set to expire last year, was re-signed for another decade to keep industrial logging out of their territory. 

How was Grassy Narrows able to force Doug Ford’s industry-leaning government to re-sign the logging moratorium? Perseverance. 

As Chief Rudy Turtle said at the 2024 Racial Justice Awards:

“We’ve been struggling with mercury poisoning for more than 50 years, and we’ve had the longest running blockade in Canada I believe, more than 20 years we’ve been standing against logging we don’t want logging near our territory.”

Clear-cutting on Grassy Narrows’ Treaty 3 territory is particularly harmful because it releases organic mercury that is contained in the soil. Erosion from logging releases mercury into waterways, ending up in the English-Wabigoon river and contributing to the health crisis that Grassy Narrows still suffers from. Along with the cultural loss of deforestation, it’s no wonder the Nation says no to logging.

It’s evident Grassy Narrows is a powerful leader in the movement for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. They have faced some of the worst examples of environmental racism in Canadian history; over a decade of mercury dumping in the English-Wabigoon river was at the hands of a pulp mill downstream, fuelled by an industry that continues to operate today. The harms of industrial forestry on Grassy Narrows’ land and community will last forever, fuelling their unstoppable pursuit to stop not just logging, but all nonconsensual resource extraction on their territory.

Land Declaration

Shortly after the signing of the first moratorium on logging in 2017, Grassy Narrows declared their territory to be an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area. The historic declaration, known as Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek Aaki Declaration, is an assertion of their sovereignty in the face of unjust resource extraction by Ontario and Canada. It bans all industrial logging on their territory, including any logging as supply for industrial mills or logging by outsiders, keeping forest management in the hands of the Nation, not large-scale corporations.

The Declaration also stated that no mineral staking and mining should occur on their territory. However, Doug Ford’s Ontario government is ramping up mining in an attempt to profit from the transition to electric vehicles. Ford is employing greenwashing tactics to justify the government’s lack of respect for Indigenous rights and sovereignty; there are over 6,000 claims now staked on Grassy Narrows’ territory, despite the Declaration clearly stating there will not be any mining on their territory.

This directly relates to Grassy Narrows’ recently filed legal case. Not only do they seek remedy for the severe injustice of mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon river and their community, they argue that the cumulative effects of all resource extraction on their territory have impacted their rights, which would prevent the Ontario government from continuing to run roughshod over their sovereignty. If successful, the case will establish one of the most important environmental protections of our time, specifically safeguarding Indigenous Nations and communities from the extremely harmful effects of pollution in rivers, lakes, and all waterways.

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