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Ontario First Nation Wins Cleaner Forest after 10 Years of Logging Blockade

On December 3, 2002, members of the Grassy Narrows First Nation blockaded the road used to haul logs out of the area. Ten years later, their persistence has paid off in the form of cleaner water and a healthier forest in which to live.
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A banner hangs above the blockade site at Grassy Narrows. Photo by Jon Schled.

Ten years ago today, on December 3 of 2002, members of Grassy Narrows First Nation began a blockade to prevent the passage of logging equipment and trucks through their traditional territory.

Located fifty miles north of Kenora, a small Canadian city on the north shore of Lake of the Woods, Grassy Narrows is a semi-remote Anishinaabe community with a population of about 950 people who live on the reserve (reserves are the Canadian equivalent of reservations in the United States). For generations, the people of Grassy Narrows have hunted, trapped, fished, and gathered throughout the 14 square miles of their reserve, as well as a vast region of 2,500 square miles drained by northwestern Ontario’s English-Wabigoon river system. Their culture, language, and spirituality are all closely connected to their boreal forest homeland.

In the 1990s, as industrial logging intensified across Canada, Anishinaabe subsistence harvesters watched with unease as clearcuts grew larger and drew closer to their reserve. They wrote letters to logging companies and government officials, but received no substantive response. They conducted peaceful protests in Kenora, but the clearcutting continued.

It was time to try something different. One frigid night in early winter, three young community members placed logs across a snow-covered logging road north of the reserve. They were soon joined by dozens of community leaders, teachers, and youth.

Far from the lights of human settlement, the glare of logging trucks’ headlights was stark and bright. In the early days of the blockade, Grassy Narrows youth faced these lights with outstretched arms. The blockaders lit a sacred fire and established a camp at an adjacent turn-around, where Grassy Narrows residents and their supporters maintained a 24/7 presence for close to a year.

In it for the long haul

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Photo by Jon Schled.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of that cold first night. And while the blockade has stood for ten years, Grassy Narrows residents have been fighting for the right to make decisions concerning their traditional territory and keep their culture alive for much longer than that.

In 1873, the forefathers of Grassy Narrows, along with representatives of 26 other Anishinaabe groups, signed Treaty Three, the third of Canada’s numbered treaties. Although the agreement’s original intent (and therefore its contemporary interpretation) is debated, the official text of Treaty Three guaranteed that aboriginal signatories would “have right to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract surrendered.”

The fact that industrial clearcutting—carried out under provincial licenses— infringes upon these federally guaranteed rights has figured prominently in blockaders’ position papers and press releases, and was the central tenet of the legal challenge filed by three Grassy Narrows trappers in 1999.

The past 139 years have brought many changes to western Ontario. Anishinaabe people throughout the region have suffered from by a series of catastrophic impositions, including year-round settlement on small reserves, the 1876 Indian Act, which imposed external forms of government on native Canadians and aimed to strip them of their distinctive cultural traditions, and mandatory assimilative schools for native children.

At Grassy Narrows, two additional events—relocation and mercury contamination—had even more disastrous consequences. In the early 1960s, the Canadian government relocated and consolidated Grassy Narrows’ population, promising on-reserve schooling for children, access to medical care, and modern infrastructure. The move dramatically disrupted traditional social relationships. Already struggling to cope with the effects of relocation, Grassy Narrows residents learned in 1970 that mercury contamination had been discovered in the English-Wabigoon River system. The toxic metal was traced to the effluent of a pulp and paper mill located in far-upstream Dryden, Ontario. As it flowed downstream, the mercury bio-accumulated in the tissues of small aquatic organisms, fish, and eventually Anishinaabe people. The effects on physical health, economic opportunities, and collective psychosocial security were severe.

By 2002, stopping the clearcutting within Grassy Narrows’ traditional territory had emerged as the most immediate and visible impetus for direct action. Grassy Narrows residents knew that their own health depended on the health of northwestern Ontario’s waters and forests. Yet given that industrial logging is merely the latest in a long line of social and environmental injustices, the protection of their boreal forest homeland is only part of the blockaders’ agenda: they are equally—and inseparably—concerned about asserting their treaty rights and renewing their land-based way of life.

The cultural significance of the direct action at Grassy Narrows is apparent to anyone who has spent time at the blockade site. Shortly after the blockade began, the local school started holding on-site indigenous-studies classes, and community members started coming together at the blockade to share wild foods like moose meat, wild rice, blueberries, and local fish. They participated in traditional religious ceremonies and enjoyed each other’s company.

As Canadian alternative media outlets spread the word about the ongoing blockade, a network of supporters appeared across Canada and beyond. Some individuals traveled to Grassy Narrows to lend a hand. Others sent words of encouragement or donated much-needed supplies and funds. Nonprofit groups also took up the cause: Rainforest Action Network, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and others worked to ensure that Grassy’s message was carried far and wide. Countless environmentalists, human-rights advocates, and consumers of paper products helped to strengthen the longest-standing anti-logging blockade in Canada’s history by supporting it and challenging corporations to find alternative sources of wood.

After years of hard work, a healthier forest

After five and a half years, the hard work of the blockaders and their allies began to pay off on the ground. In February of 2008, U.S. paper producer Boise-Cascade caved to an international solidarity campaign and declared that it would stop sourcing wood from Grassy Narrows territory unless Grassy Narrows consented to the logging. The company gave its supplier, AbitibiBowater (now Resolute Forest Products), a deadline of June 30. Facing an unyielding blockade, major contract cancellations, and appeals of their forest stewardship certification, on AbitibiBowater announced on June 5 that it was surrendering its license to log Grassy Narrows’ territory. Against all odds, Grassy Narrows succeeded in halting the flow of logs from the community’s customary land base to the mills of multinational corporations and evicted the world’s largest newsprint company.

Brazil's Indigenous Uprising
Grassy Narrows First Nation is one of thousands of indigenous communities worldwide currently defending their lands and lifeways. For more information, see http://freegrassy.org. To learn about other indigenous struggles see http://ienearth.org and http://www.culturalsurvival.org/.

More recently, in August of 2011, the lawsuit initiated by three Grassy Narrows trappers in 1999 received a favorable decision in Ontario’s Superior Court. The ruling echoed blockaders’ argument that the province of Ontario lacks legal authority to issue forestry licenses that interfere with treaty rights, an area of federal jurisdiction. The ruling has since been appealed and may ultimately be decided in Canada’s Supreme Court.

Although logging companies are eager to access the area’s valuable timber and recent provincial forest management plans leave the door open for this to occur, the hard-won hiatus from industrial logging remains in effect.

Putting an end to the clearcutting devastating Grassy Narrows’ traditional territory, at least for the time being, is a remarkable achievement. It will be celebrated once again by First Nation residents and hundreds of their supporters this December.

But the story isn’t over. In addition to fears that industrial logging may return to the region, Grassy Narrows residents continue to cope with the health effects of mercury contamination and the sociocultural effects of relocation and residential schooling.

Immured in a neocolonial system that places corporations’ bottom lines above the well-being of indigenous citizens, the people of Grassy Narrow must now fight for what their ancestors once simply lived. They have no plans to back down. This, too, is something to celebrate. Their determined stance reminds us that corporate domination is neither complete nor inevitable, that alternative ways of life are worth fighting for.


Anna Willow wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Anna is assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.

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