By Am Johal

(c) 2007 Global Information Network


VANCOUVER, Canada, Oct. 9, 2007 (IPS/GIN) — Recent Supreme Court decisions have instructed the Canadian government to conduct meaningful discussions with native groups before allowing companies to exploit their lands, but logging and mining firms are continuing to proceed without local consent.


As the Ontario election draws to a close on Wednesday, a long-running land rights battle is sure to still be raging in the east-central Canadian province: First Nations groups there are opposing mining and logging companies that have been granted concessions to exploit Grassy Narrows, a vast boreal forest.


Grassy Narrows, which is called Asubpeeschoseewagong in the indigenous Ojibway language, is situated 80 kilometers north of Kenora, Ontario. The membership of the First Nations band in that area is approximately 1,000, and their traditional land use area spans some 4,000 kilometers. About half of the community subsists on hunting, trapping, and gathering berries and medicines from the land.


Community members say 50 percent of their traditional lands have already been clear-cut by multinational logging companies, and the current licenses issued by Ontario authorities will permit additional clear-cutting for at least 25 more years.


"Mining issues continue and permits are handed out, despite the Supreme Court decision around native land rights," said John Cutfeet of the nearby Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nations group near Grassy Narrows.


The Grassy Narrows First Nation is within an 1873 treaty that recognizes the right of the Anishnaabe peoples "to pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract."


In early September, the Ontario government appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to facilitate a negotiated process and make recommendations to solve the impasse. Talks are expected to begin in November.


"Companies are drilling without following the rule of law," Cutfeet said. "There has been virtually no consultation or accommodation of our people. Treaty land was a fulfillment of the land claims process. The government and the companies have an illegal presence in our territories."


The Grassy Narrows community has suffered many traumas over the years, including forced attendance in Canada's notorious and now-defunct boarding schools, forced relocation away from their traditional living areas, flooding of sacred grounds and burial sites by hydroelectric dam projects, and clear-cut logging of their forests. Mercury waste from a paper mill constructed in the 1970s contaminated local rivers and created devastating long-term health problems.


Compared to other racial and cultural groups in Canada, indigenous people have the lowest life expectancies, highest infant mortality rates, most substandard and overcrowded housing, lower education and employment levels, and the highest incarceration rates. Rates of suicide, alcoholism and family abuse are the highest within native communities, as well.


Brant Olson of the Rainforest Action Project said, "Amnesty International and many groups have verified the problems at Grassy Narrows. The historical and political context is dire due to the logging industry. Since the mid-1960s, large portions of the community have been uninhabitable, and there have been enduring health problems and 25 percent unemployment. That led to the Grassy Narrows group to call for a moratorium on development [in January]. We want to ensure that buyers of the wood honor the moratorium."


"The community doesn't trust the intentions of companies like Abitibi Consolidated and Weyerhauser," Olson said.


Jim Loney, a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team, which had a delegation in the region, said the traditional land use area where they hunt, trap and fish has been logged by the forestry company Abitibi-Consolidated. According to Loney, trap lines have disappeared into the clear-cuts, some of which are a kilometer long.


In December 2002, a group of people from the community, including high school students, formed a blockade to stop clear-cutting. Human rights organizations such as the Christian Peacemakers Team and Amnesty International came to Ontario at the invitation of Grassy Narrows Environmental Committee to be present at the site of the blockade.


International civil society organizations have since helped to build political support for the objectives of the blockade and have alerted U.N. authorities. "There has been a lot of reaching out, educating the public, building allies and alliances, and building solidarity in support of the Grassy Narrows community," Loney said.


Last month, environmental and aboriginal groups unfurled a 75-meter-long arrow-shaped banner on the lawn of the Ontario legislature, demanding "Native Land Rights Now." The public demonstration was organized by the Rainforest Action Network and Christian Peacemaker Teams. The Rainforest Action Network is organizing a campaign to try to stop lumber giant Weyerhauser from obtaining wood from clear-cutting.


Loney said provincial and federal governments should honor their commitments and responsibilities with First Nations people and consult on matters related to the use of native land. As mining and forestry companies are moving ahead with development, there are concerns about creating a high-profile and credible process to mediate the land rights dispute.


First Nation representatives at the Sept. 21 event described how such projects degrade the land, disrupt traditional cultural practices and reverse economic rights guaranteed to them under the Canadian Constitution.


"We, the grassroots people of the Anishnabeg, have an obligation to protect the land and the culture and our way of life for the future of our children and grandchildren," Judy Da Silva of the Grassy Narrows First Nations said in a statement.