6 June 2014

by Michelle Fraser

[Note: the following reflection was adapted for CPTnet from a longer piece available on the Aboriginal Justice Team’s Tumblr page.]

CPT takes seriously its mission of listening to marginalized people and speaking their truth to a wider audience.  For this reason, our delegation met community members in Grassy Narrows who represent their community’s interests in negotiations with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), logging companies, and before the courts.

Our host, Andrew Keewatin (Shoon), is building manager and leader of the Trappers’ Centre.  Within the community, Shoon runs AA meetings and teaches children traditional skills like building canoes, snowshoes, and drums, filleting fish, and tanning hide to make moccasins. 

In recent years the MNR licensed logging companies to clearcut sections of forest on his land.  Occasionally he has been able to negotiate with the MNR to preserve bands of forest connecting water sources or to spare trees that have little commercial value.  But in the end, the MNR decides where and when logging companies may cut down forests, not the people who have lived and worked on the land and for generations.

 Community member Cheryl Fobister at blockade

When a logging company constructed a road within kilometers of Grassy Narrows, disregarding the wishes of the community, the conflict with the Grassy Narrows community came to a head.  On a cold December afternoon in 2002, three youth blocked the road by cutting down nearby trees.  This bold action brought the people of Grassy Narrows together to form a blockade, an expression of nonviolent resistance that they had been contemplating for some time.

Among the countless people that participated in the blockade, Judy Da Silva emerged as a strong advocate.  Mrs. Da Silva has watched logging companies enter her Nation’s territory for years, clearcut vast swathes of forest, and disregard the concerns her community expressed.  She is a protector of the forest and of the broader ecosystem on behalf of her children and her children’s children.  For her, dispossessing First Nations of their land, refusing to investigate the murder of 1000 First Nations women and the disappearance of 200 more, poisoning the English-Wabigoon River system with mercury, and disregarding the wishes of First Nations peoples for the use of their territory are all connected by a White settler ideology that values only those things that can be converted into money.

Concurrent with the blockade, trappers of Grassy Narrows launched a lawsuit challenging the right of the Ministry of Natural Resources to issue licenses to logging companies north of the English River.  This land was added to Ontario after the signing of Treaty 3, which the Canadian government uses to justify its dispossession of First Nations.  The Grassy Narrows trappers won the original court case, which was then appealed by the MNR.  The MNR won the appeal.  The Supreme Court heard the case on 15 May 2014 and the participants are awaiting the court’s final decision.

J.B. Fobister is a trapper, band member, and community storeowner involved in the lawsuit.  Mr. Fobister says that the goal of the lawsuit is to increase the negotiating power that his people have with the MNR and with logging companies.  His dream is for his people to be able to exercise authority over decisions that affect them and their land.

Shoon, Judy Da Silva, and J.B. Fobister have a vision for the healing of their land and of their people.  They are asking for white settler society to listen, to respect their knowledge, and to honour commitments it has made with the First Nations.  The First Nation of Grassy Narrows is not asking for white settler charity.  The First Nation of Grassy Narrows is asking for justice.