“I heard it on the television/ All the talking politicians/ Words are easy, words are cheap/ Much cheaper than our priceless land/ But promises can disappear/ Just like writing in the sand/” âe” Australian musician Yothu Yindi.
For years, every level of Canadian government has made assurances to the First Nations âe” most never carried out. But in just a couple weeks, we’ve seen amazing gains for First Nations communities in Ontario. Leaders have been freed from jail. The third largest logging company in North America has been driven away by resistance from the First Nations community that stakes claim on that land. Finally, diverse communities, organizations and individuals who have been hesitant to work together in the past are working hand-in-hand for Native land rights.
Sleepover for Sovereignty at Queen’s Park
The Gathering of Mother Earth Protectors and Sovereignty Sleepover took place from May 26 to 29 at Queen’s Park, but given the events of the past few weeks it feels like it’s still ongoing. We were calling on the provincial government to respect the right to say no to environmental destruction on Native lands. We were demanding freedom for political prisoners Bob Lovelace and the KI-6.
The gathering culminated with Grassy Narrows, Ardoch Algonquin and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nations and their supporters grasping hands to make a wish, before offering tobacco into the sacred fire. Then we headed off for the final march. Normally, I would find this kind of stuff pretty cheesy, but somehow it just seemed like the right thing to do. The gesture was a spiritual custom from a Native tradition, but also symbolized disparate groups coming together to form a broad coalition.
Allies came from across Ontario to attend the gathering. KI community members travelled from one of the most remote communities in northern Ontario’s Boreal Forest, while more than 20 Grassy Narrows folks walked from Kenora nearly 2,000 km along the highway. The trek took almost four weeks.
There was a general sense of optimism in the air as activists reunited with one another at the May 26 rally. It had been two years since I, along with a group of Rainforest Action Network interns, camped out at the Slant Lake Blockade in Grassy Narrows. Two years since the Earth Justice Gathering in Grassy saw over 100 activists from across the continent hold a 12-hour blockade on the Trans-Canada Highway. It was good to see everyone together again in one place. Even though it was Queen’s Park, it felt like our own private party space (replete with rented party tents, a mobile stage, a sound system and three cooked meals served up every day).
While the high profile speakers (comedian Cathy Jones, novelist Thomas King, CPTer James Loney and former AFN chief Ovide Mercredi) and the CLC endorsed 2,000-strong-march on May 29 were the events most people heard about, it was the time spent in between where the real coalition building took place.
A broad coalition taking direction from First Nations communities
During the daily teach-ins, participants had the chance to learn about wide-ranging issues from locally specific (the politics surrounding the arrest of Tyendinaga Mohawk Shawn Brant) to far-reaching (the links between the Olympics, the G8 and the SPP). More importantly, we all had a chance to make lasting connections and discuss future action plans. Meetings and consultas are already underway in southern Ontario for 2010 resistance.
The weeks leading up to the Sovereignty Sleepover were filled with endless conference calls (Monday: rally and sleepover coordination, Tuesday: sovereignty sleepover logistics, and Friday: community and organization representatives). At Queen’s Park we finally had the chance to meet face-to-face. The coinciding CLC convention offered an opportunity for union backing. While union members were less present at the campout, many endorsed the Gathering of Mother Earth Protectors, including OPSEU, CUPE, OSSTF, the Law Union of Ontario and of course the CLC itself. Prior to the event CPT and others allied with religious organizations like the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, United Churches Bloor and Spadina and the Toronto Buddhist Peace Fellowship for endorsements and resources.
Key organizers considered the diversity of groups involved as well as how high the stakes were for the three First Nations communities. In response, they worked out a framework to deal with important tactical questions. Non-Native supporters would take direction from KI, Ardoch and Grassy Narrows community leaders, while RAN, CPT, ForestEthics, Canadian Federation of Students, OCAP, the Tyendinaga Support Committee, No One Is Illegal and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid would provide logistical support in Toronto.
A conscious effort was made to take lessons learned from the 2006 Earth Justice Gathering to inform the way we organized this one. Everyone attempted to be inclusive and transparent in organizing this event. Security liaisons engaged in open dialogue with Queenâe(TM)s Park, negotiating use of the front lawn to light a sacred fire and erect teepees, party tents and mosquito mesh tents for people to “rest their eyes” (the words of QP officials who didnâe(TM)t want to admit they were giving us permission to sleep onsite).
Aboriginal Affairs minister Michael Bryant came out front of Queen’s Park for a few brief moments to give interviews with the media, but didn’t talk to any gathering participants. He reiterated that ye olde Mining Act should be revised. The act doesn’t take into consideration outstanding Native land claims and allows companies to set up shop on private property belonging to settlers since they own only the surface rights.
Movement building leads to victories
But politicians’ tokenistic gestures don’t encompass the true power of the movement itself. The events of the last few weeks speak for themselves. The first and second victories came simultaneously on Wednesday, May 28. While the harsh sentencing of the seven Native leaders was clearly politically motivated, justice was finally served when former Ardoch Algonquin chief Bob Lovelace AND the KI-6 (Donny Morris, Cecilia Begg, Sam McKay, Jack McKay, Darryl Sainnawap and Bruce Sakakeep) were all freed from prison.
The courthouse was so packed that supporters spilled out onto the street. Bob Lovelace, the KI-6 and lawyer Chris Reid joined the crowd at Queen’s Park to celebrate immediately following their release.
Although Uranium mining continues at the Robertsville site near Ardoch and Sharbot Lake, a precedent was set in the Ontario Court of Appeals when Lovelace was released. In response, Frontenac Ventures dropped the remaining injunction charges on Monday June 2 against him and other activists charged for protesting against the mine. Victory number three!
The final and most extraordinary victory came on Tuesday June 3 when one of the largest paper and pulp corporations in the world, AbitibiBowater, announced they would halt logging in Grassy Narrows and pursue alternative wood sources. The Slant Lake blockade at Grassy Narrows is the longest standing in Canada. Five and a half years of blockades in the community and solidarity actions targeting companies that AbitibiBowater supplies have crippled the logging industry in the Whiskey Jack Forest. Boise announced in February they would no longer purchase wood fibre coming from Grassy Narrows. AbitibiBowater say they cannot wait four more years while the province negotiates with the Grassy Narrows council.
“Now they can’t say direct action doesn’t work,” a friend told me following the announcement. If something has been learned from the Grassy Narrows victory, KI and Ardoch will regain control over their lands.
RAN, CPT, Amnesty International, ForestEthics and others have all worked in solidarity with the Grassy Narrows community to fight destructive logging on their traditional lands. The unrelenting Grassy blockade in conjunction with outside supporters pressuring companies in urban centres meant they literally couldnâe(TM)t afford to ignore us. Opposition to corporate greed and injustice need not remain a localized issue. Our personal connections could not be broken by distance alone.
A Peruvian from a community with the largest gold mines in South America said it very eloquently at the May 26 rally: “The Andean people are united with Canada’s First Nations people to defend their water and their land.” He went on to say, “This economic system that’s based on greed wants to take away from us not only our land but also our spirit and our unity. And we’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Through our solidarity networks we were able to break the isolation that can hinder resistance. Our arms stretched across rivers and highways. There were times when we as activists had tactical disagreements, but we recognized that this issue was too important to walk away from. When we build solidarity instead of division within our movements, we can accomplish so much more.
When we held hands at Queen’s Park we were told to make a wish. I wished for logging to stop in Grassy Narrows. It looks like I wasn’t the only one.