For 20 years they blocked and marched, went to court and negotiated, sang and drummed to protect their forest from clear-cutting.
And on the eve of celebrating two decades of resistance, they learned that no logging company or sawmill would touch any tree on their land without their permission.
“This is an important step in our long fight to protect our territory from industry,” said Chief Rudy Turtle of the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, better known as the Grassy Narrows.
“With this promise, all regional sawmills have finally committed not to use our trees against our will.”
It’s a victory that came from years of protest on a remote gravel road in northwestern Ontario, but was sealed in a Zoom call between company chief Weyerhaeuser, which owns a sawmill in Kenora, and Turtle’s predecessor as a band council. leader, Randy Fobister.
The call began with a presentation on the history and values of Grassy Narrows, where a group of young people’s decision to tie their arms in front of a logging truck in 2002 finally forced one of the largest logging companies forest in the world to relinquish its Whiskey Jack Forest license.
Since that move in 2008, no logging has taken place in the more than one million hectares of forest, most of which is unceded traditional land of the Asubpeeschoseewagong people.
But the threat remained.
The province established a new forest management plan in 2012 that would have opened up large swaths of the forest to clearcutting. The band challenged the plan in court, and in 2017 forced the province to declare a five-year logging ban on more than three-quarters of Whiskey Jack Forest. Earlier this year, the no-harvest zone was renewed until 2024.
All the while, however, the Weyerhaeuser mill was willing to take timber from the Grassy Narrows lands, should logging ever resume.
That possibility, company president David M. Graham promised on the Oct. 6 Zoom call, will no longer threaten the community.
He told Chief Fobister that the mill would not accept any wood from the Whiskey Jack Forest without permission from the Grassy Narrows Band Council.
In a letter dated Oct. 18, Graham pledged to “respect and honor Grassy Narrows’ right to free, prior and informed consent.”
“As such, Weyerhaeuser is committed to working with Grassy Narrows…before sourcing wood.”
With no loggers willing to fell and factories willing to saw, the party scheduled for Friday to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the blockade has turned into a celebration of victory.
There will be moose stew served as fans gather at the blockade, where they will be joined by people from across the country and around the world watching online.
By the band’s own calculations, the blockade saved 15 million trees from being cut down and contributed to a resurgence of Indigenous resistance across Canada.
Chief Turtle said the blockade will remain in place until the province legally recognizes the band’s land sovereignty claim in 2018, which prohibits clearcutting, mining, damming of rivers and oil and gas extraction.
“We will not rest until our territory has permanent protection that upholds Grassy Narrows law,” he said in a statement. “Babies who were born during the blockade are now adults. … We will always be here and we will never give up the defense of our land.
In the summer of 2002, JB Fobister recalled how young people in Grassy Narrows were willing to put their bodies at risk to stop the logging of their ancestral lands.
The blockade almost did not take place.
The group had been inspired by Indigenous protests in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, and Kahnawake (Oka), Quebec, but they knew that without outside support no one would know what was going on deep in the forest, far cameras and media attention.
After spontaneous appeals from the United Church and Amnesty International, the protesters’ resolve was strengthened. When a new logging road was built just a few miles from town in December, bringing the roar of logging trucks so close they could be heard, it was time to take action.
“It’s unbelievable that it lasted so long,” Fobister said. “I thought it would be demolished on the first day.”
About 50 youths simply stood in front of the trucks and refused to let them pass, he said. The police came to negotiate the passage, but the young demonstrators did not yield.
By the end of the week, people had come to chop wood, cook and tend the fires. The local school has even bused students to the front lines so they can participate, and has started running environmental and bush skills lessons right there up the road.
But the logging did not stop. Instead, the trucks used secondary roads to reach the cut blocks, thus avoiding the blockade. It became a game of cat and mouse, where blockers rushed to block different roads and trucks took bigger and bigger detours. They even started rolling at 3 a.m. in an attempt to catch protesters sleeping.
“After about a year, they were just tired. We weren’t allowing them to take the logs,” Fobister said. “They got discouraged and stopped transporting. I guess it cost them too much.
The 66-year-old laughs as he thinks back to those tense days. Things are calmer now.
Fobister’s children and grandchildren all took turns at the blockade, learning the history of the resistance and protecting the land.
Fobister now leads a land protection team of young people who patrol the land looking for evidence of logging and mining exploration in violation of the band’s ban.
“I am happy to see that there is absolutely no more logging,” he said.
Grassy Narrows may have held back loggers, but the community still grapples with a legacy of mercury poisoning after an upstream pulp mill dumped its industrial waste into the river.
The health effects of the neurotoxin have plagued hundreds of people in the small community for decades.
After a 2016 Star investigation found workers at the plant had buried barrels of mercury in the ground, the province pledged $85 million to clean up toxic pollution caused by “negligence.” flagrant”.
“Decades of forced industrial extraction on Grassy Narrows has had a devastating impact,” said Chief Turtle.
“It is high time to begin on the path of reconciliation by respecting our control over our own land so that we can heal the land and heal our people.”
Last year, recognizing that Indigenous peoples are best placed to be stewards of their lands, the federal government pledged $341 million to help First Nations across the country establish Indigenous protected and conserved areas. These nature reserves are initiated by local Indigenous groups, but must be recognized by a province or territory to obtain legal status.
This is the next step in their claim to land sovereignty.
Since the election of Premier Doug Ford in 2018, mineral exploration has exploded in Grassy Narrows. A Star survey last year revealed more than 4,000 mining claims, covering an area twice the size of the city of Toronto.
At the same time, the province is developing a new 10-year forest management plan that locals say could reopen the area to logging.
Asked about the future of resource development in Grassy Narrows, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said the government “takes our duty to consult very seriously. This includes considering the views of indigenous communities in decisions about forestry and natural resource management.
In the meantime, Weyerhaeuser appears to have left the door open for future logging, but only with the band’s permission.
“Our recent dialogue with the Grassy Narrows Band reflects our commitment to maintaining open communication and our interest in developing a strong working partnership now and for many years to come,” said company spokeswoman Mary Catherine. McAleer.
As for the residents of Grassy Narrows, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, Fobister said, as he prepared to go on patrol with his landcare team.
“People are more inclined to protect the land now. They see that industrial activity does nothing for us.
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