Last August, a group of seven people from Canada and the United States set out on a delegation to Kenora and Grassy Narrows, a native reserve in northern Ontario, on a fact-finding mission. The group was a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, all of whom were on a first visit to the area, as part of CPT’s aboriginal justice project. Our goal was to learn, and to report back on what we had heard and witnessed.
Our small group included a Toronto schoolteacher; a Quaker minister and dog trainer from Richmond, Illinois; a young man from Kitchener who served as a church deacon and a spiritual-care provider at a hospital; myself, a journalist and activist; and three CPT members. Over a period of ten days we slept in a Kenora church and in a one-room cabin on the Grassy Narrows reserve; we spoke with local First Nations people; and we studied native culture, history, and the reality of aboriginal life in Canada, including the residential school system. We met with police and community- and crisis-centre staff in Kenora; we attended court; and we further developed relationships with local First Nations, or Anishnaabe, peoples, initiated when CPT first began work in Kenora and Grassy Narrows in 2002.
We heard stories of suffering and injustice, and listened to other tales of resistance by the Anishnaabe people of Kenora and surrounding areas.
Grassy Narrows comprises 2,500 square miles of forests, lakes and rivers north of Kenora. It has been adversely affected by large-scale, clear-cut logging of traditional hunting and trapping territories; lands have been flooded, and water poisoned. In 2002, the people of Grassy Narrows launched a blockade to stop clear-cut logging in their traditional territory, which is one of the longest-running indigenous land protests in Canadian history.
In January 2007 community members called for a moratorium on logging and other resource development in their traditional territory. The province and the community then entered into talks about the long-term management of the forest, but the province has not ruled out renewed logging, with or without the community’s consent.
One Grassy Narrows community member told our delegation that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) receives much pressure from the logging companies, who want to log in the cheapest way possible, by clear-cutting. Grassy Narrows commented on an MNR “contingency plan” in a nine-page letter, but their concerns have not been addressed.
It is difficult to build trust when there is so much entrenchment on the other side, he added; “they don’t want to see any changes.”
Today, there is little wildlife left in Grassy Narrows’ forests, he noted. What remains is small because no habitat is left for the larger species; this has had an impact on hunting and trapping. Large-scale commercial activities on the land, done without the consent of the First Nations peoples, have also caused flooding and water poisoning.
Two aboriginal trappers from Grassy Narrows, which is included in the Treaty #3 signed by the Anishnaabe peoples of the area and the Crown in 1873, are currently having their case heard in Toronto. The trappers are challenging the Ontario government’s right to issue permits to logging companies to harvest wood from their traditional lands. The case is unique in that the plaintiffs were able to receive some legal costs from the Ontario government in advance of the case being heard. A decision is expected by spring.
Traditional sovereignty over land has been affected in other ways, too: We met two Anishnaabe women who had built cabins on their ancestral lands without the required government permits. One, a trapper and member of the Lynx clan, risked having her cabin destroyed and had been ordered to appear in court on two criminal charges of building without a permit and refusing to obey a stop work order.
The cabin was built in order to live traditionally, which would include hunting and trapping. This trapper told us that she was also questioned by police as to why she had built a cabin in such a remote area. Her sister told of another family who built a cabin that exceeded government specifications, and when two family members returned to it in the spring they found it had been destroyed.
Our workshop leader – a trapper, educator, and elder of the White Fish clan, who lives on Trout Lake northeast of Kenora and Grassy Narrows – told delegates that the government does not always grant native people building permits on Crown land, which is often the traditional land of First Nations peoples. Those with hunting or trapping licences are more likely to receive building permits, but the permit system can create competition among those applying for them, she told us. She had to pay a fine of $15,000 for building her cabin without a permit. And some object to applying to the government to build on their own ancestral lands.
We also heard stories of racism in Kenora, whose surrounding area includes ten reservations. At a women’s centre a young Anishnaabe staff member said she planned to leave Kenora when her son reached high-school age because she didn’t want him to experience the racism many First Nations students face in schools.
We heard of Anishnaabe people driving three hours to hospital in Winnipeg in order to avoid the poor treatment they and their family members have experienced by Kenora medical staff. One woman – a Grassy Narrows activist, hunter, trapper and grandmother – told us that a cousin of hers, suffering from diabetes, had been picked up by paramedics, and so rudely treated by one that the driver of the first ambulance in which the patient was transported filed a complaint about it.
Visiting a local shelter and drop-in centre, we heard of differential treatment by police of First Nations and white residents who were publicly intoxicated; one Anishnaabe man reported that while native people caught drunk in public were taken to the local jail and fined, whites who were drunk on the street were escorted home or to a safe place. And we visited the Kenora courthouse over two mornings, observing that First Nations people are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system.
Recent changes to policing in Kenora have caused some concern. In late 2007 the city requested bids for providing police services, with the municipal Kenora Police Services (KPS) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) both bidding.
The Grand Council of Treaty #3 – which has been responsible for law enforcement on the region’s First Nations reserves since 2003 – endorsed the KPS in its bid to retain its contract to police Kenora, citing the recent efforts of the then-police chief to reach out to aboriginal people, as well as the benefits of local control over police services.
Yet Kenora signed a five-year contract with the OPP, which in July 2009 took over policing duties from the KPS. The contract brought Kenora’s downtown core under OPP jurisdiction, and the OPP has assigned a community liaison officer to deal specifically with relevant issues such as homelessness and substance abuse. Officers are also required to take cultural awareness training.
However, staff at the women’s sexual assault centre told us about two OPPpolicies which concerned them: that they would not be allowed to be present in the OPP interview room with domestic or sexual assault victims; and that in domestic violence cases, the OPPhas in the past charged both partners (the KPS did so as well, we were told, though this situation improved with training).
Our delegation ended with a pow-wow in Grassy Narrows. We had met tremendously dedicated activists there, among them a young mother, Chrissy Swain, who led 22 youth from Grassy Narrows and other First Nations communities to Toronto on the “Protecting Our Mother Walk,” a journey of more than 1,800 kilometres. This march was a catalyst for the “Gathering of Mother Earth Protectors and Sovereignty Sleepover” in May 2008 in Queen’s Park, Toronto. When we met Chrissy, she was planning another walk from Grassy Narrows to Ottawa in August, intended to bring together representatives from communities across the province to deliver a united message to Ottawa that the rights of First Nations must be honored and land protectors must not be criminalized.
We had been angered and pained by our witnessing, but we were also lifted by the spirit of the people.
Elizabeth Raymer is an activist and independent journalist based in Toronto. Notes from fellow delegate James Campbell were also used in this story.