– letter to friends regarding a rich experience

This past month I’ve had the privilege of standing with the people of Grassy Narrows at their logging road barricade. This letter is partly about my need to tell you what I see happening there and partly to let you know there are ways for you to get involved if you’re so inclined. The blockade isn’t getting a lot of press right now but it has the potential for becoming big news and pivotal for our times. I find the leadership there is determined, creative and patient.

I was asked early in December 2002 to help out at the barricade – and went o Grassy in December and in early January for a few days each time.  Ever since our years of working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), we’ve followed and supported the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). CPT was started in the 80’s by Mennonites who wanted a way of becoming more physically involved in areas of conflict around the world. They gathered some modest funding and started training North American Christians (mostly) to stand with people in Palestine, Chiapas Mexico, Colombia, Burnt Church New Brunswick and now Grassy Narrows. They are dedicated to non-violent means of intervention; to stand against injustice with people who are facing the powers that oppress them. And although they are openly Christian, they are in no way evangelical or ‘in your face’ about their religious beliefs. They see the Bible and Jesus’ life as being primarily about solidarity and liberation. Usually CPT requires individuals to go through non-violence training. But they needed an extra body in a hurry at Grassy Narrows and I was able to jump into action (thanks to my family/community) without their formal training.

Grassy Narrows is about an hour’s drive northeast of Kenora, Ontario – which is about 2 ½ hours drive east of Winnipeg.  The conflict there has been building for generations. 50 years ago Ontario Hydro flooded much of their traditional hunting grounds. Then 30 years ago the water around Grassy Narrows was poisoned by mercury that had been allowed to escape into the river system by a pulp mill up stream. Those individuals who could prove they have permanent disabilities caused by the pollution received some compensation. But the community has not been compensated for the 130 plus jobs (out of 300 adults on the reserve) they lost due to the closure the mercury poisoning forced on their guiding and commercial fishing business. When the community was moved in the ‘60s, they were assured that they would maintain hunting, fishing and trapping rights on their traditional lands. But Abitibi-Consolidated (paper company) has encroached into those lands, damaging the community’s ability to harvest traditional medicines, destroying trap lines and compromising wildlife habitat with their clear-cut style of logging.

Individual hunters and the community as a whole have complained to the company and to various levels of government about this encroachment. They argue that the provincial government should not be issuing logging licences to companies on crown land; land the government of Canada has reserved for traditional use.  But of course the complaints are either ignored or allowed to drop between the government cracks – and Abitibi moves along unhindered.  In early December last year the environment committee of Grassy Narrows put up a blockade on the logging road that goes past their community.  CPT has been in contact with the leaders at Grassy over the years and was called to be a presence at the blockade – hoping this would reduce the potential for violence.

CPT is primarily about being physically present with documenting equipment in a conflict situation. They sent a worker (Matt Schaaf) to the site immediately with a digital camera, video camera and satellite phone. He was at the blockade when the community leaders and high school students confronted the first logging trucks. The trucks now have to go much farther around to make the round trip. There hasn’t been much confrontation on the road over the holidays. The community has used this time to build up its local support, gain support from their Grand Chief and Council (Treaty  # 3 – Anishnabe/Ojibway communities in the area), solicit legal council, plan new actions and attract some media attention. This quiet time has also given CPT the chance to pull together workers who can commit longer term than I can to the action.

This letter can’t begin to give enough detail for some and goes on far too long for others. I welcome any calls or emails if you need clarification. Thanks for listening to this. I’ve had a wonderful time at Grassy. There’s nothing like a bit of political/social activism to bring out the spirit in me. Was it Chomsky who said that its too bad so many of us are too fast asleep to realize there’s a revolution going on? If you and I don’t do what we can to change this world for the better we’re just piling work on the backs of our children and grandchildren. But if this isn’t where you’re called to use your creative, passionate energy – no problem. We can each only do what we have to do. Please send a prayer for strength, peace and prosperity whenever you pass by Grassy Narrows in your mind.

Stay well and Enjoy.