It may be 20° below in kenora these days, but that's not keeping the Grassy Narrows Ojibwa from a spirited blockade to ward off yet another in a long line of corporate threats to their community. The troubled reserve, which received worldwide press 30 years ago as a victim of mercury poisoning, is now trying to head off pulp and paper giant Abitibi Consolidated, poised to fire up chainsaws only a mile from Grassy Narrows' boundaries.
Too close, say the blockaders, who insist their treaty rights to hunt and trap in those forests would be violated. Since last week, shifts of up to 200 men, women and school children from the community of 700 80 kilometres northeast of Kenora set up camp and are blocking logging trucks from accessing nearby old-growth stands. They're demanding that all logging within their traditional grounds cease and that any revenue collected, past or present, be shared.
"The blockade has been a long time coming because everything else has failed," says Steve Fobister, a Grassy Narrows council member and former chief, adding that efforts to communicate with Abitibi Consolidated and the province have done little."This is our only alternative to save some of the little forest that we still have left."
The community has seen their surrounding ecosystem whittled away by a flurry of provincial schemes and corporate abuses over the last 50 years. Grand visions of hydro power meant the flooding of burial sites and traditional hunting and fishing grounds in the late 50s. And in 1970 the Ontario government informed them that the mercury from a nearby pulp and paper mill was killing their fishing industry and poisoning their people.
Thirty years later, 10 tonnes of mercury still sits in their riverbeds and 70 to 80 per cent of adults recently tested have symptoms of Minimata disease, a mercury poisoning illness marked by twitching, blurred vision and birth defects. "The government of Ontario allowed the dumping of mercury in our waterways and ended our commercial fishery. And now it's allowing the clear-cutting of our land. Where does it stop?" says trapper and blockader Joe Fobister, who has been planning the action for the last three years.
NDP provincial leader and Grassy Narrows MP Howard Hampton says he's been pushing the Tories to listen to his constituents for years. "I've raised the issue several times, but new provincial policies allowing much bigger clear-cuts are in play here."
Abitibi spokesperso Marc Osbourne says his company followed the full MNR requirements necessary to obtain the licence. "We've done a full public consultation that lasted two and a half years. The residents of Grassy Narrow have been consulted entirely for this plan.'
But Robert Janes, a lawyer representing Grassy Narrows, says the natives have had treaty rights to hunt and fish in the region dating back to 1873. Janes is currently representing three Grassy Narrows trappers in a 1999 lawsuit against Abitibi and the provincial MNR. The trappers say that logging has removed more than 50 per cent of the trees from their trap lines, endangering their livelihood.
The suit, which has yet to be heard, argues that the Ontario government can't infringe on the trappers' treaty rights by licensing Abitibi to log. But according to Hampton, "This government's position is that [the people of Grassy Narrows] do not have constitutional or treaty rights to that land."
The MNR refuses to comment while the case is pending.
Steve Lawson of the First Nations Environmental Network predicts that the blockaders have a long, cold standoff ahead of them. "The company tends to wait people out, especially in winter" And Steve Fobister adds, "How long would a starving man argue?"
But the community is determined and has a longhouse and four fires set up, with three portables on the way so that both high school and junior high classes can be held on site permanently. Grassy Narrows teacher Carl Chaboyer says it's a vital cultural experience for his students to witness.
"The kids are the ones who lay down to stop the first trucks. The winds and the cold aren't going to make us go away," says Joe Fobister.