Canadian First Nations group threatened by clear-cutting

On International Day of Forests, Ontario’s Grassy Narrows members blast government plans to log on their territory

A section of Grassy Narrows land after clear-cutting.
Jon Schledewitz

As the world celebrates International Day of Forests on Friday, members of Grassy Narrows, a First Nations group in Canada, say they are on alert over a new government plan for clear-cut logging on their territory.

An indigenous group of about 1,500 people, Grassy Narrows has sustained itself for thousands of years on its traditional territory of roughly 5,000 square miles of forests, lakes and rivers north of Kenora, Ontario.

In December, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) approved a 10-year forest management plan (FMP) for the Whiskey Jack Forest that includes clear-cutting on swaths of Grassy Narrows territory.

“It calls for more of the usual — clear-cutting large volumes of trees that we depend on,” said Joseph Fobister, a member of Grassy Narrows. “It’s a problem for us because we try to sustain ourselves through traditional hunting, fishing and trapping.”

A MNR spokesman told Al Jazeera the government is not breaking First Nations treaties and has no plans to log on Grassy territory. But a map included in the plan contradicts that statement.

Grassy Narrows has been confronted with clear-cutting on its land before.

In December 2002, for example, First Nations youth lay down in the path of logging trucks, sparking the longest-running indigenous logging blockade in Canadian history.

With approval of the new FMP, a new generation of Grassy Narrows members has promised direct action to prevent clear-cutting on their land.

“Not only does the plan threaten my family trap line, it also threatens the traditional knowledge of future generations who cannot yet speak for themselves,” Edmond Jack, a Grassy Narrows youth organizer, said in a statement. “Our mothers fought so we could have this land, so we will continue to fight for it.”

First Nations members’ right to sustain themselves on indigenous territory is protected under Canada’s Treaty 3.

“Canada has the right to use parts of the land for industrial activity but not in such a way as to make Grassy Narrows’ right to hunt and fish meaningless,” said David Sone, a Grassy Narrows supporter with FreeGrassy.net.

Andrew Donnachie, press secretary at Ontario’s MNR, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement that the approval of the FMP doesn’t necessarily mean that all logging set out in that plan will be carried out.

“We are in a planning phase only of the 2012-2022 plan," she said. "Harvest areas will only be harvested once a decision has been made to harvest a specific area and a license has been issued.”

Sone said he rejects that logic.

“Given that the MNR has made clear plans to log on Grassy Narrows land, I would say the burden is on them to give indication that they do not intend to implement those plans," he said. "The MNR has given no assurance to Grassy Narrows that they will not log on their territory without consent, so the obvious assumption is that they intend to follow their own plans.”

Grassy Narrows members are not taking MNR at its word. They have a Supreme Court case scheduled in May in which they will defend their Treaty 3 rights.

Ontario’s government said they will not engage in any clear-cutting on Grassy Narrows territory until after the court reaches a decision.

“Licensing and harvesting of these areas would not occur until after the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision on the appeal,” said MNR spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski.

Fobister said he believes they will begin logging on portions of Grassy Narrows territory before May. But he keeps hope for a favorable court verdict.

“We’re optimistic,” he said. “We have to be.”

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