The pundits got it wrong: Caledonia wasn't the longest-running native blockade; Grassy Narrows was - and is. Far off the media radar, residents of the northwestern Ontario reserve have been barricading a logging road to hold off Abitibi Consolidated since December 2002.
Even if the provincial government manages to douse the flames at Six Nations, the dust-up in Grassy's neck of the woods is as boundless as Ontario's boreal hinterland.
With large-scale logging poised to push into the northern half of the boreal forest and mineral exploration ready to rush across the whole region, aboriginal activists are cranking up the volume.
There is now a constitutional challenge to Ontario's Mining Act as well as a lawsuit on behalf of trappers incensed by the disappearance of animals. Over the past year, nine communities have called for a complete development moratorium, and June saw a flurry of press conferences and a 2,100-kilometre walkathon to Queen's Park. From Monday (July 10) Grassy is hosting a six-day forest action camp-in for eco-defenders.
The fight for this hypersensitive area, part of the second-largest intact original forest on earth, has attracted a growing list of citified supporters, from the Federation of Ontario Naturalists to Greenpeace and the Wildlands League. The newest additions are the savvy ForestEthics and allied Rainforest Action Network, veterans of the famed Clayoquot Sound struggle and fresh from a success in protecting 2 million hectares of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.
ForestEthics is now haunting the corridors of corporate and government power with its particular contribution to ecosystem protection - the all-mighty boycott. ***
Speaking in a sparsely attended press room in Queen's Park, Grassy Narrows' Steve Fobister is literally a voice from the wilderness. "The blockade started because the company and the Ministry of Natural Resources have treated First Nations people like they are invisible,' says Fobister, deputy chief of the 11-hectare reserve that came to international attention in the 1970s when residents were diagnosed with mercury poisoning caused by a pulp plant upstream in Dryden.
Grassy Narrows, which, unlike the other eight First Nations calling for a moratorium, is in the southern half of Ontario's boreal forest, received a boost in May from an Amnesty International report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The group accuses Canadian authorities of violating treaty rights and international law by overriding Grassy's opposition to logging on its traditional lands.
The community's dogged three-and-a-half-year-old obstruction of a logging road is now being added to ForestEthics' wide list of favoured campaigns. "We're inspired by their commitment and energy," says the org's Toronto-based Kim Fry.
The group's current boycott against Victoria's Secret (which uses boreal fibre from Alberta for many of the 390 million catalogues it produces annually) has gained wide publicity in the U.S. with hundreds of shopping-mall protests.
And ForestEthics has launched a campaign against Grand & Toy's U.S. parent, Office Max, for buying wood products from the embattled Whiskey Jack Forest near Grassy Narrows.
On the other hand, it is working with other companies like Home Depot, which agreed to significantly increase its boreal wood purchases from Tembec, whose northeastern Ontario operations are certified by the enviro-endorsed Forest Stewardship Council.
At the same time, ForestEthics and others plan to hound Premier Dalton McGuinty with protests and ad campaigns in the lead-up to next year's provincial election, taking him to task for commitments he made in March 2003 to establish comprehensive land use planning throughout the boreal zone.
Activists point to MNR draft plans released last November to begin cutting north of the present legal logging limit in the Valhalla Forest adjacent to Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, near the Manitoba border. Enviros are also trying to spare the remaining virgin stands and caribou in the region's Kenogami and Trout Lake forests. ***
The day after Fobister's press conference, the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation arrives at Queen's Park in force. From their isolated reserve on Big Trout Lake in the far northwest, scores of KI residents, as well as supporters from other communities in the region, parade down Avenue Road behind their green, yellow and blue flags, pushing baby strollers and banging on ceremonial drums. They accompany several men from the reserve who are on the last leg of a 34-day, 2,100-kilometre walk from Pickle Lake to the legislature to protest provincially sanctioned attempts to drill for platinum on their traditional land.
KI has launched a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Ontario's Mining Act, based on the Supreme Court of Canada Mikisew decision ruling last November that First Nations must be consulted and accommodated on development on lands covered by treaties. The act grants prospectors "free entry' to look for deposits almost anywhere.
The case could have far-reaching consequences, since pending land claims on treaty lands cover almost all of the northern boreal. Some 4,400 mining claims are also already staked in the region, spurred by high commodity prices and recent rich finds.
"It's increasing all over the north," says Vernon Morris, chief of the Muskrat Dam First Nation, of rampant mineral exploration. His community, southwest of KI, had to call off its traditional spring goose and caribou hunt this year in an area disrupted by diamond-mining giant De Beers's exploratory drilling and helicopter flights.
Premier McGuinty, meanwhile, began the summer by praising De Beers at the inauguration of construction on Ontario's first diamond mine, which will cover 50 square kilometres near the coast of James Bay. His government has rejected calls for a northern development moratorium, insisting that enough checks and balances are already in place to protect native communities and the environment.
"The Ontario government believes that the existing regulations under the environmental assessment process and the approvals process for permits and licences will sufficiently protect the environment," says the MNR's Barry Radford. He adds that the Ontario Secretariat for Aboriginal Affairs is seeking input from native groups on new draft guidelines spelling out consultation requirements in accord with recent Supreme Court rulings.
Yet in December, even the MNR's own advisory Provincial Forest Policy Committee unanimously "encouraged" the province to consider a moratorium on future resource development in the northern boreal zone until a new land use planning program is in place.
In regard to Grassy Narrows, MNR Kenora East supervisor Shawn Stevenson says the community has an open invitation to return to negotiations and participate in the next five-year forest management plan for the area if it ends its blockade. "The ministry wishes to strike a balance and resolve these issues," he says. "We have to maintain economic benefits as well as a supply of wood to the local mills."
Stevenson says he can't discuss the complaints of the Grassy Narrows trappers because of a court case they have launched, but he defends clear-cut logging as the best silvacultural system for the boreal. "The species of trees we have up here in the northwest are adapted to large disturbances like fire. [Clear-cutting] is the process of creating large disturbances."
Native and enviro groups beg to differ. They counter that industrial forestry irreparably alters boreal ecosystems, noting that woodland caribou have been extirpated everywhere it has spread. Fobister says caribou were abundant around Grassy Narrows when logging was done with horses, skidders and chainsaws, before clear-cutting began about 25 years ago.
"Then they wiped out the porcupine, caribou, osprey and other wildlife," he recounts. "There's no life in a clear-cut area. You can't even hear a bird sing."