Grassy Narrows: A Community Resisting Genocide

The ongoing Reclamation at Caledonia has given us settlers another of those periodic reminders that this land is not our land, and that this whole colonial enterprise called Canada is not a done deal yet. Far from it.

But of course this is not a matter of just one community encroaching on another, or of just one indigenous point of resistance. The entire landmass claimed by Canada is contested, and the entire Canadian economy – structured as it is on the extraction and sale of natural resources which lie on indigenous lands – exists in a destructive state of conflict with the lives and cultures of the First Nations peoples.

The genocide did not end one hundred or two hundred years ago – it is ongoing. Not something our settler ancestors did that we can indulge in guilt over, but something happening right now that we too must resist or else be complicit with.

One particularly intense point of decimation in the relationship between Canadian capitalism and the indigenous nations is at Asubpeeschoseewagong, or the Grassy Narrows First Nation, north of Kenora in the western reaches of what is called Ontario (about four hours drive from Winnipeg).

As Dave Brophy has written on the Friends of Grassy Narrows site:

In the 1800s the Anishinaabe of northwestern Ontario had a prosperous and diverse land-based economy that allowed its population to grow and thrive. According to Boyce Richardson, the Indigenous population increased approximately five-fold between about 1820 and 1870, growing from less than 500 to 2,500 people during that period.

There were few Europeans in the area until around 1850. In the decades prior to the 1873 treaty, though the Indigenous inhabitants still far outnumbered whites, the Anishinaabe had to occasionally re-assert their control of the territory as the number of white settlers and travelers increased.

The Canadian State, competing with the US, was extremely eager to plunder the resources of the “northwest” and establish itself as the colonial power there before the US. The expansion of the Canadian state went beyond merely settling the area. If Canada’s rulers were to extend control in that direction, negotiations with the Indigenous peoples were necessary to avoid a costly war.

The need for a treaty with the Anishinaabe became especially urgent when the Canadian government recognised that continued road construction through Anishinaabe territory – later known as the Dawson route – would be impeded without the Indigenous peoples’ consent.

And yet, typically, the legal obligations of the treaty would in no way supersede the economic and political designs of Canadian capitalism.

Dave Brophy continues:

Before Treaty 3 was signed, the Canadian government had already begun legislating policies that were completely at odds with the agreement they were to make. But even after the treaty, the Canadian government continued to pursue its colonialist course in blatant disregard of the agreement it signed.

The first major attack on the Indigenous economy was the destruction of the Lake of the Woods sturgeon fishery. Canadian negotiator Alexander Morris had understood the Indigenous peoples’ demands around hunting and fishing rights, and assured them that those activities would not be affected by the settlement of whites in the area. But an influx of commercial fishers beginning shortly after Treaty 3 was signed, and the subsequent pillaging of the sturgeon fishery proceeded without any intervention from the Canadian state. Before, the bountiful yet sustainable catches of fish had helped the Anishinaabe prosper and were a long-time staple of the Indigenous economy. But the resource was destroyed following a short bonanza for white fishermen.

A second major attack took place in 1881. As noted above, at the time of the 1873 treaty the Anishinaabe already were producing significant amounts of food through agriculture, especially wild rice, potatoes, and corn, and they wanted to expand their endeavours. The treaty stipulated that the Indigenous peoples would be designated “wild land reserves” as well as “farming reserves”. With this arrangement, it would appear that the Anishinaabe were well placed to continue diversifying their economy by furthering agricultural production.

However, an 1881 amendment to the Indian Act (initially created in 1876) systematically discriminated against Indigenous peoples. The amendment prohibited “western” Indians, including the Treaty 3 Anishinaabe, from selling any agricultural produce. This measure undermined the Anishinaabe efforts to extensively expand their agricultural production – efforts that had been underway for 10 years.

A third major colonialist attack came in the 1890s, when Ontario’s northwestern boundary was extended to the far side of the Treaty 3 area. In 1894 the federal government had transferred the natural resources on “Crown” land to the provinces. This provided a loophole of sorts, designed to let the federal government avoid meeting its legal obligations to Indigenous peoples who had signed treaties. The federal government’s assurances of Indigenous land rights were clear under the treaties (even though the federal government ignored those obligations whenever it was convenient). But when jurisdiction vis-à-vis management of “public” lands was transferred to the provinces, there were no explicit stipulations made to clarify what level of government would be responsible for upholding Indigenous peoples’ treaty rights.

As Canadian capitalism continued to develop, so did the violations of indigenous national and human rights. Zooming up to the latter half of the 20th century Ken Hechtman has written in the Montreal Mirror:

In 1962, the federal government discovered gold on the original [Grassy Narrows] reserve. How our gold got buried under their land remains unsolved. The entire community was moved that year to their current reserve where they started a salmon fishery with the compensation money. Eight years later, a Dryden pulp mill – then called the Reed Paper Company, but it changes names every few years – dumped 50 tons of mercury into the English and Wabigoon rivers. The fishery was wiped out and, as of last year, 86 per cent of the community show one or more symptoms of mercury poisoning according to a study by Dr. Masazumi Haroda, who has been following the Grassy Narrows community for over 30 years. Next they tried growing wild rice, until Ontario Hydro built a dam and raised water levels throughout the area, costing them 90 per cent of their harvest.

“The population of Grassy Narrows is 800 people, three quarters of them are under the age of 17 and it’s not because they have a particularly high birth rate,” says Thunder Bay Indymedia editor Dave Clement. “It’s because most of the older people are dead.”

Environmental diseases are the leading cause of death. A 10th of the community have Lou Gehrig’s Disease, caused by mercury poisoning, and an eighth have cancer – the depleted-uranium affected areas of Iraq aren’t this bad. Other causes include alcohol, gas-sniffing, suicide and murder.

As many as 1,000 people showed symptoms of the dreaded “Minamata disease” in the 1960s and 1970s. Pollution meant the English-Wabigoon River had to be closed to commercial fishing. Jobs vanished and welfare dependency increased.  In 2002, 86% of Grassy Narrows residents tested showed signs of mercury poisoning.

One settler supporter of the Grassy Narrows blockade describes the “tour” of the reservation she was given by a Clan Mother:

Here, families of five or more live in one or two bedroom bungalows, some missing doors and others with broken windows.

All the homes we visited were made from cheap particleboard that is apparently toxic, except the chief’s log cabin which is by comparison a mansion. Meanwhile Weyerhaeuser extracts virgin hardwood forests from Grassy Narrows territory to build beautiful homes throughout North America. However, a grassroots effort to reclaim some wood and build their own log cabins with a community run lathe is currently underway.

Judy also pointed out Seskatcheway Anishinabe School, where half the teachers are brought in from outside in an effort to improve failure rates in subjects like math. However, she says lots of these teachers have just finished teachers’ college. They only stay for a year to get some practice so they can then snag a job back in the big city. Those are just some of the reasons why Judy has chosen to home-school her five children.

But capitalism, this system which condemns some communities to desperate poverty while elevating others to positions of obscene wealth, does not proceed without resistance. Communities don’t voluntarily self-destruct, nations do not voluntarily disappear. That’s clear if you look at the history of any indigenous nation confronted with colonialism, anywhere in the world.

So little surprise that on December 2nd 2002, Anishinaabe youth from Grassy Narrows lay down in the path of industrial logging trucks to stop the clear-cutting on their traditional lands by Abitibi Consolidated and Weyerhaeuser. (Abitibi is a Montreal based paper corporation, Weyerhaeuser is a major forestry corporation.) They were quickly supported by a core group of other activists in the community. It was the beginning of what is now the longest standing indigenous blockade in Canada.

Again according to Brophy, the blockaders at Grassy Narrows were supported by the band council only reluctantly at first, and more recently have been excluded from talks with Abitibi and the provincial and federal levels of government, while the official leadership has gladly taken the opportunity to negotiate, with leverage as a result of the blockade, on behalf of the community with high-level representatives of the company and governments.

Yet despite the blockade, logging has persisted through alternate access points. Talks have so far yielded nothing but rejection of scant offerings from Abitibi, with the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Ontario Ministry of National Resources participating solely as passive observers, in keeping with their typical strategy of non-intervention vis-a-vis upholding aboriginal rights. Although the blockade still stands strong, logging companies like Abitibi and Weyerhaeuser are still destroying parts of Grassy Narrows’ traditional lands, and the Ontario provincial government refuses to address the growing crisis of unresolved native land rights conflicts and habitat destruction in the great northern Boreal forest.


The above is a synopsis of the situation at Grassy Narrows which i though might be useful in contextualizing the post i will make later today regarding a police raid on the blockade on July 15th 2006.

The information in this post is all from a variety of sources on the web. I am not personally very well informed, and have not been personally involved ni solidarity actions around this blockade, so if i got anything wrong it is certainly my fault and not that of these sources:

For more information see the Friends of Grassy Narrows website.


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