Aboriginal Justice delegation to Treaty #3 Territory - April 2011

Aboriginal Justice Delegation to Treaty #3 Territory, March 31-April 11, 2011

Trip report

By Tawd Bell

 On Friday, April 1, 2011 the six members of this CPT Aboriginal Justice delegation met at the home of Stephanie Landon, a local indigenous person and friend of CPT.  There were introductions, briefings and logistical matters to consider.  How could this bright-eyed band of activists suspect the heart wrenching sights, sounds and stories that lay ahead of us over the next 11 days? As we drove to Grassy Narrows that afternoon, we fed each other with the newness of our relationships and the excitement of what lay ahead. Discussing our hopes and fears of the delegation we drove out to Grassy with hopeful hearts and bridled enthusiasm.  Once in Grassy, events unfolded that began to reveal the true nature of the plight of the Anishinabe in the Treaty 3 area.  Between the film, ‘The Scars of Mercury’, and a visit from community member and activist, Judy De Silva, we were slowly becoming aware of the weight of hundreds of years of genocidal policies and attitudes.

Day 2 at Grassy Narrows afforded an even larger peek behind the curtain of oppression of native peoples in the Treaty 3 area.  After a morning of delegation organizing and administrative tasks, the group set out with Judy to the site of the logging blockade that was active until last year.  This was exciting in that the blockade site is almost mythological. It has been the focus of so much Anishinabe and CPT energy and direct action over the last several years.  Upon arriving, however, the site of the abandoned blockade and vandalized cabin seemed to be a haunting metaphor for the current dip in hope and activist energy among the Anishinabe people.  Judy herself seemed to represent the hope of the future breaking back through theJudy da Silva with the Delegation dark clouds of stagnation that seemed to linger on the reserve.  So there was the ever-present paradox that accompanied us during our delegation: the evidence of the crushing weight of years of genocide and the inextinguishable hope and power of the Anishinabe themselves.   Their light has never gone out and it was clear that they weren’t about to let it go out with out a struggle.

The third day of our delegation was a Sunday.  Some of us decided to attend the church service at Grassy Narrows that was provided by a Korean missionary and his family.  A few of us respectfully declined to attend as we had trepidations regarding the ongoing colonial implications of a mission of that mode located on the reserve.  As it turned out, that hunch was correct.  The church service seemed contextually and culturally anachronistic and out of place.  We must always remember that Christian missions have always been a part of the colonialization of indigenous populations globally and the suspicion and mistrust of that spiritual program has deep historical implications.   The day turned out to be very redemptive.  Christine Swaine and her family stopped by for dinner and shared about the origins of the blockade.  We were especially honored when she and her daughter blessed us with a beautiful traditional song.  It was haunting and mystical.  It was definitely a “thin place”, a place where the Divine and the human meet and intermingle. 

Most of us have long suspected the deep systemic racism inherent in U.S. and Canadian colonialism.  However, Monday proved to be an intensive on the subject.  We drove from Grassy to Kenora to meet with Sallie Hunt from the Northwest Community Legal Clinic.  The clinic offers free legal services to the marginalized in the Kenora Community.  The Aboriginal community is the most marginalized and therefore utilizes the services of the clinic more than other groups in Kenora.  Sallie explained with bright clarity the plight of the Indian community of Kenora.  In particular, she told stories about categorical racist treatment of the native population by both the white community as well as the police.  These stories were confirmed and reiterated in different forms throughout our trip.  Everything from reports of mysterious incidents of natives being found in the frozen lakes without any knowledge as to how they got there to outright refusal to let natives into places of business.  The reality of the situation was slowly becoming clear, and it was deeply troubling.  An afternoon visit to the courthouse was all it took to confirm our deepest fears.  Every person working for the courts, from the judge to the bailiff to the lawyers were white.  And every defendant that we saw come up for arraignment was aboriginal.  When we walked though the waiting area, again, all those waiting for a hearing were native.  The contrast was stark, and it was shocking.  The painful reminders continued as we met with the staff of the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre.  90% of their clients are aboriginal.  Hearing the stories of abuse and violence was sobering and drove us deeper into contemplation of the deep generational pain of this once numerous and culturally powerful people.  Colonial devastation at “ground zero” was beginning to feel visceral and painfully obvious.

April 5th brought a day of knowledge very different then that of the previous day.  Shoon, the director of the trapper’s center, gave us lessons in the old knowledge of hide tanning and snowshoe making. He explained how the trapper’s center on the Grassy Narrow reserve served the community as a resource to keep the old ways alive.  One of the side benefits to staying at the trapper’s center was the fact that members of the community would randomly stop by.  These moments were definitely some of our richest while staying in Grassy. 

The next day, our last in Grassy, we visited various people in the community including a high school class on Anishinabe Traditions taught by Charles Wasagase.  We primarily answered questions posed by Charles about the mission of CPT as well as our perspective on the blockade and occupation of the park.   As we left Grassy that afternoon we were filled with grief, joy and hope.  Our thoughts turned to what new knowledge and experiences awaited us in Kenora. 

As the 7th of April dawned none of us knew just how emotionally significant the day would be.  Our Undoing Racism Workshop was scheduled for that day led by Stephanie Landon and Julián Gutiérrez Castaño.  Stephanie was already there and waiting for us with bells on as we were just waking up, blurry eyed and groggy.  By  this point in the trip a strong camaraderie had developed between all of us.  Finding such a valuable friend in Stephanie was an unexpected blessing and we were eager to hear what she had to say about racism and prejudice from her perspective.  In the first half of the workshop we did a “privilege walk” in which all the participants start at the same place, a starting line of sorts, and through a series of questions concerning social opportunity the participants take a step for every “yes” that they are able to answer.  Examples of questions might be “Are you surrounded by people who speak your native language as a first language?” or “Is your skin color the predominant color in your social environment?”.   By the time the questions had all been asked it was deeply apparent who had privilege and advantage and who didn’t. Stephanie hadn’t even left the starting line and Julián, the only other person of color in the delegation, was only a couple steps ahead of her.  The rest of us, all white, were at least half a dozen steps ahead of both of them.  Most were a dozen of more steps ahead.  We would highly recommend this exercise to any group who would like to demonstrate the realities of white privilege in our society.  It was immensely powerful.  Emotions were beginning to run high.  Most of us at this point were experiencing moments of weeping and deep pain as the realities being demonstrated began to sink in.  The next exercise, however, was the one that would cause most of us to lose control completely.  Stephanie had us bring items of significance into a circle; we began talking about why they were significant and placed them in the middle of our group.  At this point she arranged us in concentric circles symbolizing the members of the tribe.  The children were the first circle around the sacred objects for they are the future of the tribe and need teaching and protection. The elders were in the next circle. As teachers of knowledge and keepers of wisdom they are highly cherished in the community. Mothers were in the third circle. As nurturers they cared for the spirituality and vitality of the tribe.  In the outer circle were the men who provided for and protected all those that were of significance to them; the whole of the tribe.  Then white man came. First he took the children.  They were spirited away to foster homes and residential schools where they were stripped of their culture, language and tribal identity.  Beaten, raped and murdered they disappeared into the shadow of the white man almost completely.  The elders were then decimated by disease, grief and systematic eradication.  The wisdom of the tribe and the old ways were now deeply endangered.  The women, too, were hunted down and destroyed.  Some men remained.  But what purpose did they live for? The people they belong to had been systematically taken from them.  Their way of life, knowledge, and future was simply gone.  Only hopelessness remained.  By the end of this exercise, we were torn apart.  Empathy was the overwhelming emotion.  We were all forever impacted by this powerful teaching tool and will be always indebted to Stephanie for the painful epiphany. 

On the 8th we had a meeting with the local director of the MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources).  The morning was taking up by preparation and research.  There was a lot of trepidation concerning this meeting.  MNR has not been nor does it continue to be very accommodating to the Anishinabe position concerning the Treaty 3 land use area.  During the meeting we kept it professional as possible and asked very direct questions.  A line of questioning concerning the different understandings of what land management could mean threatened to spin off course.  There seemed to a duality to the approach of MNR that we were having a hard time justifying.  They, by their own admission, were both in negotiations with the Anishinabe concerning logging on the land and at the same time continuing to allow logging on the land because “the land has to managed”.  They had a hard time understanding that a moratorium on logging is a legitimate form of land management.  But Julián was there to keep us on track and civil.  Overall the meeting with MNR was frustrating and disappointing.  The colonizing mindset held by the MNR is deeply biased toward White Domination of resources and land as well as non-whites.  There seemed to be no serious understanding of the Anishinabe as a legitimate nation of peoples having long standing claims to the land and resources.  MNR is “managing” stolen land. Getting them to admit that truth is simply not possible.

The next day saw us with a lighter schedule. We spent the morning catching up with our loved ones back home and getting to know each other more deeply.  In the afternoon we met with Kelvin Chicago, an Anishinabe who is running for the Ontario Parliament as an independent.  He stated that he wasn’t expecting to win but was hopping to spread the message of the plight of the Treaty 3 Indians.  One of the messages that I took from our meeting with him is that the tribal chief system wasn’t working for the people of the reserves.  And that the Chiefs were making deals with the MNR that primarily benefited themselves and their families. Ironically, one of those deals happened while we were there.  The Chiefs signed an agreement with MNR to reopen certain areas of Treaty 3 to logging, disappointing many people on the reserve.  This may be a move by both the Chiefs and the MNR that push the Anishinabe to reinstitute the blockade.  That night we watched “unrepentant” a documentary about the mid-century residential schools in the area.  It felt like we were unable to get a break from the wave after wave of reminders of the plight of the Anishinabe.  Late that night, we joined Stephanie in a human rights action outside of a bar frequented by the locals.  She had told us of an all-indigenous hockey tournament that was being hosted in Kenora that weekend and know that the teams and fans would be out celebrating that night.  The police in Kenora have been implicated in some human rights abuses over the last several years and we were at the bar to film and document the police and their treatment of the Indians.  I personally had never seen such a police presence outside a local bar at closing time before.  You would have thought that someone had reported a riot.  There were 8 police vehicles and upwards of 16 officers present at any one time.  Stephanie told us afterward that the police acted completely different than usual, presumably because we were there watching them.  This was stated early on in the evening when one of the officers asked what we were doing there with our red CPT hats and video cameras.  “Making sure the police stay within their legal mandate, and don’t abuse their authority,” was our answer.  The police barely left their cars and stayed well away from the entrance to the bar.  There were no instances of fighting or illegal activity as people left the bar and found taxis and other rides home.  The crowd dispersed themselves and didn’t need prodding from law enforcement.  We knew from stories that we had heard that the police would normally forcibly disperse the crowd at a certain point in the evening.  So clearly, they were restraining the activity that they normally would have engaged in.  It was a good feeling to know that our presence did some real and immediate good. This was ominously reinforced as we drove back to the church to put our weary bodies to bed and realized that a police cruiser was following us and stopped a half a block away as Stephanie dropped us off at the door to the sanctuary.  We were staring down the dark street in disbelief when the officer suddenly and almost aggressively sped off past us.  Our eyes chased the red taillights as they raced off into the distance.  Mission accomplished, message sent, time for bed.

April 10th was another Sunday and we joined the congregation of the church that was allowing us to stay in their building for worship.  Sharing our experiences with them and spending the afternoon reflecting on the trip was a good exercise to help up understand the things we did and people and places we saw during our stay in Grassy Narrows and Kenora.  We also spent more time with Stephanie that day just continuing to envision how CPT can continue to stand in solidarity with the Anishinabe in the future.  That night we were joined by Judy De Silva and her family for a last meal of sorts.  She expressed her frustration with the Chief and the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding.  There was a lot of discussion about reinstituting the blockade in earnest.  All in all it was a touching and productive last gathering for us before heading out the next afternoon. 

It would misleading to not mention our last day and the tears and sad goodbyes that were handed out with the hugs as we parted ways.  There is a deep bond that forms when people come together to help lift the weight oppression. It was reassuring to know that at least in our hearts, the dehumanization of colonialism could be undone by the commitment to come together and just experience one another, whites and first nations alike.  We had become sisters and brothers then, and the solidarity remains.  Most of us hope to return to Kenora and continue to work with the Anishinabe to help undo the atrocities of our white ancestors.  There is much to repent of, and much to do.

[Members  of the delegation were Michael (Tawd) Bell (Columbus, Ohio, USA), Julián Gutiérrez Castaño (Risaralda, Colombia), Ann Heinrichs (Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada), Tim Nafziger (Chicago, Illinois, USA), Gerhard Neufeld (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) and Mark Van Steenwyk (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA).]