In remote northwest Ontario, a crackling bonfire and story-telling quietly marked the 10-year anniversary of the longest protest blockade in Canada's history, one that has become an iconic Native land defense battle.
On December 2, members of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation gathered at the ongoing logging blockade near their reserve as supporters across Canada began a week of events, including lighting a sacred fire outside the provincial legislature, honoring what has become an internationally recognized struggle that has seen the small community stand in the way of giant corporations and sent its spokespeople around the globe.
“I knew it was going to be a big fight and a long fight, but I never pictured ten years!” blockade activist Crissy Swain told Indian Country Today Media Network by phone from the blockade at Slant Lake, the sound of a wood fire in the background. “Sitting here now, by the fire, it feels like exactly the same fight. It makes me angry that we're still out here—that we're still not being heard, that we're still fighting after ten years; it makes me frustrated. I feel like it's ongoing, but I still have hope, and I still have that fire in me.”
The Grassy Narrows blockade began on December 2, 2002, when two people stepped in front of a logging truck hauling timber out of clear-cuts in the band's traditional territories. Don Billard remembers the beginning of the protest. Initiated by his spouse, Roberta Keesick, and her sister Judy da Silva, the blockade took off as supporters from other Native communities arrived to help. Those indigenous allies, Billard recalls, were key teachers.
“They just stood in front of the truck as it was coming,” Billard recalls. “Up until that time, I thought that was the bravest thing I'd ever seen! It inspired us all and it inspired me: just the act of standing in front of the truck, and being at the mercy of that huge pulp truck. But the truck stopped. After that, it was common to see [our] people doing that.”
Chief among the challenges was maintaining 24-hour-a-day protest camp as the bitter northern winter struck, and through nine icy winters to follow. The founder of Grassy Narrows Trappers Center, Shoon Keewatin, assembled local youth to build a permanent log cabin at the blockade.
“I remember people were starting to notice all the clear-cuts around the area,” Keewatin told ICTMN. “Especially when people went out in planes—they noticed that clear-cuts were coming in from all sides, almost. I'd noticed there weren't as many fur-bearing animals around, the ones that run around in the trees. When they started bulldozing roads around Slant Lake, people had had enough.”
The struggle for cultural survival connects many of the problems Grassy Narrows has faced, Keewatin asserts. The industrial clear-cuts, and the ensuing decline of hunting habitat, was simply the last straw.
“It's another thing they're taking away from us, from our people,” he said. “First they took our language in residential school. Then it was our fishing and the mercury in the river system. Now it's the logging.”
Blockade organizer Judy da Silva agrees that the struggles are all linked, as they are to the world's environmental crises.
“The Canadian government is responsible for the poisoning of our people, because they give these huge industries the permission to dump these things, to continue poisoning the waters, and to continue destroying the forest,” she told ICTMN. “We as consumers keep those industries going, and I think now we've got to be more responsible in how we gorge ourselves on Mother Earth's resources.”
In 2008, AbitibiBowater announced it would stop logging in the area. Earlier this year a judge ruled that the province could not impinge on treaty rights in issuing forestry licenses. But despite Ontario's efforts to encourage residents to negotiate logging access through an advisory committee, the province continues to seek new forestry contracts for the Whisky Jack forest.
“It's teaching me patience,” Swain said of the blockade. “I've learned a lot.... I would say, if you feel it strong enough in your heart to stand up for the land and to stand up for your people, then do it! Don't sit there and wish, but do it. It's worth it. Ten years down the line, if you're still standing there, you'll be standing with lots of people.”