Blockade renewed at Grassy Narrows First Nation, asserts self-determination

Published in Signs of the Times | Fall 2010

Grassy Narrows residents blockade a road through their traditional territory (Photo: David P Ball)

GRASSY NARROWS FIRST NATION (ASUBPEESCHOSEEWAGONG NETUM ANISHINABEK) – One week after the Ontario government threatened to halt maintenance of a backroad used for fishing, hunting, trapping, and rice and berry harvesting, members of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwest Ontario community are continuing their eight-year blockade to assert their territorial rights.

Led by grassroots women from the Anishinabek community, since August 21 the blockaders have prevented Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) from interfering with their work crew, which was visited by MNR three times last week and ordered to purchase a gravel permit, alongside warnings to stop work citing environmental, public and worker safety concerns. This action continues the longest blockade in Canadian history, which since 2002 has successfully stopped clearcut logging on Grassy Narrows territories and has raised concerns about the government’s lack of action on mercury poisoning in the community.

“We have our own government here,” said Robert Keesick, capital projects manager for Grassy Narrows First Nation, who is responsible for the road maintenance contract. “We have our own way of dealing with the environment, of taking care of our workers. This is our territory, so we have the right to use the land.”

“We support our chief and council – they are the authority here. They received their jurisdiction when they signed the treaty. All we’re doing is fixing a road that was there already, and yet [MNR is] not doing anything about the mercury in the river,” he added.

A sign across the blockaded road reads “Ministry of No Respect: Keep Out,” and community members are maintaining a 24-hour presence at Slant Lake, just outside the reserve, allowing only non-MNR traffic to pass.

So far, the government has not challenged the blockade, and on its first day a conservation officer was turned back. MNR told local media it is concerned about damage to a beaver pond where Grassy Narrows contractors are repairing washouts and beaver damage to back-roads on the First Nations traditional territories, as well as worker and public safety issues. Community members, however, consider the government’s actions harassment and an impingement on their treaty rights.

“When they talk about environmental concerns or workers’ safety, it’s like they think we’re dumb,” said Roberta Keesick, one of the community members active in the blockade. “Of course we think about this stuff too, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have lasted this long.

“The funny thing is that MNR is saying they’re concerned about a beaver pond, but the government pays people to kill beavers because they call them ‘nuisance beavers,’ because they’re wrecking the roads. Their quibbling over a beaver pond is contradictory. We don’t need a permit; we already got permission from the Creator,” she added.

The blockade has been joined by invited members of Christian Peacemakers Teams (CPT), which has an almost decade-long presence supporting the community’s struggle for self-determination, as well as other supporters.

“All this is towards our sovereignty, it’s about the same thing as other Aboriginal struggles,” Roberta Keesick said. “We hope others will feel less intimidated or feel they have to get permits and permission. Lots of people feel they can’t fight it. When we do our blockade, we hope it opens people’s eyes to who they are as Aboriginal and Anishinabek.”

The back road being maintained is used by Grassy Narrows members to access hunting, trapping, wild rice picking and berry picking areas, and for access to a fishing lodge at Ball Lake, rights enshrined under Treaty 3. The fishing lodge was granted to the First Nation as part of compensation for mercury pollution in 1986, and the government stopped maintaining the road following the Slant Lake blockade started in 2002. The community is calling for support from allies elsewhere to defend the Earth and Indigenous rights.

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