After years of suffering from mercury contamination of their water and fish, the flooding of their sacred sites and sky-high unemployment, the drawn-out battle of yet another threat to their environment simply tipped the scales.
So they took to the streets - or, rather, a dirt logging road - and formed a blockade, a human fence to stop trucks from entering the forest. Their mission? To stop AbitibiBowater (then known as Abitibi Consolidated), one of the world's largest logging companies, from clear-cutting in the Whiskey Jack forest, much of which is on the tribe's traditional lands.
"Over 50 percent of our traditional land has been clear-cut," Joe Fobister, spokesperson for the Grassy Narrows First Nation Environmental Committee told me in early 2003, for the First Nations Drum. "There's reforestation but it's all monoculture tree farming. They plant trees they're going to harvest again. The land is turning into a tree farm."
Since then, the blockade has continued. Over the years, support has poured in from human rights and activist groups around the world. The San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN), working with Grassy Narrows since 2003, helped apply pressure to companies like Boise Inc., which owns a paper mill that accepts logs from the Whiskey Jack. In February, Boise declared that it would only deal with community-approved operations. In May, the government agreed to begin negotiations with the First Nation.
But before they could begin, the longest logging blockade in the continent's history met with a different kind of success than expected when AbitibiBowater announced in early June that they will give up their license to cut in the Whiskey Jack forest.
"We were thinking we'd have a quicker resolution," company spokesperson Jean-Philippe Côté told the Toronto Star. "We respect the decision, but it doesn't fit with our business interest. We don't want to wait four more years without knowing what's going to happen."
The move resulted in celebration by those on the side of saving the forests and Aboriginal rights. "Grassy Narrows has scored a major step forward for Indigenous rights," David Stone of RAN's Old Growth Campaign told the Environmental News Service. "We're calling on all companies to follow suit and respect the rights of Indigenous peoples to give or withhold consent for industrial projects on their traditional territories."
His words are timely. In another area of Northern Ontario, several leaders from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation received jail sentences earlier this year for disobeying a court order to stay away from a prospective uranium mine in their traditional territory. Arrested for protesting at the potential site, they have been subsequently released. They might be free, but business is continuing as usual and this battle might just be the latest front in the fight between Native land rights and corporate demands.