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Grassy Narrows just secured a ‘major landmark’ — 20 years after its logging blockade began

For 20 years, they’ve blockaded and marched, gone to court and negotiated, sang and drummed to protect their forest from clear-cutting.

And on the eve of the celebration of two decades of resistance, they have received word that no logging company or lumber mill will touch any trees from their land without their permission.

“This is a major landmark in our long fight to protect our Territory from industry,” said Chief Rudy Turtle of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, more commonly known as Grassy Narrows.

“With this promise, all regional mills have finally committed not to use our trees against our will.”

It’s a victory that has come from years of protest on a remote gravel road in northwestern Ontario, but one that was sealed during a Zoom call between the head of the Weyerhaeuser Company, which owns a lumber mill in Kenora, and Turtle’s predecessor as band council chief, Randy Fobister.

The call opened with a presentation on the history and values of Grassy Narrows, where a group of young people’s decision to link arms in front of a logging truck in 2002 eventually forced one of the world’s largest logging companies to surrender its licence to log in the Whiskey Jack Forest.

Since that move in 2008, no logging has occurred in the more than one million hectares of forest, most of which is the unceded traditional lands of the Asubpeeschoseewagong people.

But the threat remained.

The province set out a new forest management plan in 2012 that would have opened up large swaths of the forest to clear-cutting. The band challenged the plan in court and, in 2017, forced the province to declare a five-year ban on logging in more than three-quarters of the Whiskey Jack Forest. Earlier this year, the no-harvest zone was renewed until 2024.

The entire time, however, the Weyerhaeuser mill has been willing to take lumber from Grassy Narrows’ land, if ever logging restarted.

This possibility, pledged the company’s president, David M. Graham, on the Oct. 6 Zoom call, will no longer loom over the community.

He told Chief Fobister that the mill would not accept any wood from the Whiskey Jack Forest without the permission of Grassy Narrows’ band council.

In a letter dated Oct. 18, Graham committed to “respect and honour Grassy Narrows’ right to free, prior and informed consent.”

“As such, Weyerhaeuser commits to working with Grassy Narrows … prior to sourcing wood.”

With no loggers willing to log and no mills willing to saw, the feast planned for Friday to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the blockade has transformed into a victory celebration.

There will be moose stew served as supporters gather at the blockade, where they will be joined by people from across the country, and the world, watching online.

Supporters of Indigenous logging blockaders in Grassy Narrows march in Toronto in the annual Grassy River Run in 2019.

By the band’s own reckoning, the blockade has saved 15 million trees from being cut and contributed to a resurgence in Indigenous resistance across Canada.

Chief Turtle said the blockade will stay up until the province legally recognizes the band’s 2018 Land Sovereignty Claim, which prohibits clear-cutting, mining, the damming of rivers and oil and gas extraction.

“We won’t rest until our Territory has permanent protection that respects 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 on defending our land.”

Back in the summer of 2002, J.B. Fobister recalled how Grassy Narrows youth were ready to put their bodies on the line to stop the logging of their ancestral lands.

The blockade almost didn’t happen.

The group had been inspired by Indigenous protests in Haida Gwaii, B.C., and Kahnawake (Oka), Que., but they knew that without outside support, no one would know what was going on deep in the forest away from cameras and media attention.

After spontaneous calls from the United Church and Amnesty International, the protesters’ resolve was steeled. When a new logging road was built only a few kilometres from town that December, bringing the rumbling logging trucks so close they could be heard, it was time to spring into action.

“It’s amazing it lasted so long,” said Fobister. “I thought it would get torn down the first day.”

About 50 youth simply stood in front of the trucks and refused to let them pass, he said. Police came to negotiate passage, but the young protesters wouldn’t give in.

By the end of the week, people had come to chop wood, cook and keep the fires going. The local school even bused students to the front lines so they could participate, and started holding classes in environment and bush skills right there on the road.

But the logging didn’t stop. Instead, the trucks would take back roads to reach the cut blocks, avoiding the blockade. It became a game of cat and mouse, where the blockaders would rush to block different roads and the trucks would take bigger and bigger detours. They even started rolling at 3 a.m. in an attempt to catch the protesters sleeping.

“After about a year, they just got tired. We weren’t allowing them to take the logs,” said Fobister. “They got discouraged and stopped hauling. I guess it was just costing them too much.”

The 66-year-old laughs when he thinks back to those tense days. Things are calmer now.

Fobister’s kids and grandkids have all taken shifts at the blockade, learning about the history of the resistance and how the land has been protected.

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 prohibition.

“I’m happy that I’m able to see there’s absolutely no logging now,” he said.

Two blockaders stop a pulp-truck bound for the Abitibi mill in Kenora, Ont., on Dec. 12, 2002. The Grassy Narrows band has scored a major victory 20 years later.

Grassy Narrows may have held off the loggers, but the community still struggles with a legacy of mercury poisoning after a pulp mill upstream dumped its industrial waste into the river.

The health effects of the neurotoxin have afflicted hundreds of people in the small community for decades.

After a 2016 Star investigation revealed that mill workers had buried barrels of mercury in the ground, the province pledged $85 million to clean up the toxic pollution caused by “gross neglect.”

“Decades of industrial extraction forced on Grassy Narrows have had a devastating impact,” said Chief Turtle.

“It is past time to start 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, in recognition that Indigenous people are best positioned to be stewards of their land, the federal government pledged $341 million to help First Nations across the country establish Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. These natural preserves are initiated by local Indigenous groups, but must be recognized by a province or territory to achieve legal standing.

This is the next step for their Land Sovereignty Claim.

Since Premier Doug Ford was elected in 2018, mineral prospecting has soared in Grassy Narrows. A Star investigation last year found more than 4,000 mining claims, covering an area double the size of the city of Toronto.

At the same time, the province is drawing up a new 10-year forest management plan that locals fear could open the area back up for 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 consideration of the views of Indigenous communities in decisions regarding forestry and natural resource management.”

In the meantime, Weyerhaeuser appears to have left the door open to future logging, but only with the permission of the band.

“Our recent dialogue with the Grassy Narrows Band reflects our commitment to maintain open communication and an interest in developing a strong working partnership now and for many years to come,” said company spokesperson Mary Catherine McAleer.

As far as the people of Grassy Narrows are concerned, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, said Fobister, as he prepared to head out on patrol with his Land Protection Team.

“People are more inclined to protect the land now. They see that industrial activity does nothing for us.”


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