Amnesty International Canada Urges Halt to Logging Indigenous Land
By Kate Harries
TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, September 25, 2007 (ENS) - Clearcutting vast swaths of northern boreal forest in the traditional territory of a Canadian indigenous tribe violates the rights of its members and should stop, says Amnesty International Canada.
Amnesty is calling on the Ontario government to respect a moratorium on logging declared by the people of Asubpeeschoseewagong, or Grassy Narrows, until "free, prior and informed consent" has been given.
"The Province of Ontario has long failed to uphold its responsibility to respect indigenous rights," the report states. "The province did not carry out meaningful consultation before licensing large-scale logging activities.
Clearcut at Grassy Narrows on indigenous land. (Photo courtesy Carroll Cox, Envirowatch)
Canadian Supreme Court rulings require meaningful consultation and accommodation of aboriginal concerns and, in some circumstances, the consent of the affected people before government undertakes activities that impact indigenous land use, the report points out. But all too often, federal and provincial policies and regulations fail to conform to what is required.
Amnesty sent a mission to Grassy Narrows in April to look into the rights violations, only the second such investigation in Canada's history. While Grassy Narrows was chosen because a history of catastrophic disruptions makes the situation there particularly urgent, the report says it is not unique. Rather, "it's a powerful illustration of the great harm that can be caused by the exercise of arbitrary and unchecked state power over the lands and lives of indigenous peoples."
The report received scant media coverage, even though it was released in the middle of the current Ontario election campaign in which indigenous concerns are an issue because of several high-profile occupations and blockades. One aboriginal occupation of a proposed subdivision on disputed land has lasted 19 months.
"Aboriginal disputes are not on the wavelength of many editors unless they erupt into violence, in which case it fits their news values," John Miller, journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, said in an interview.
Miller said he does not believe the attitude of news professionals reflects a majority indifference to a minority plight. "I think there is a more favorable, more curious attitude on the part of the general public than there is from the news media or politicians. It's unfortunate that the public is not going to learn about this report."
Ontario Conservative leader John Tory, who is calling for a crackdown on indigenous protests, did not respond to a request for comment.
David Ramsay, aboriginal affairs and natural resources minister with the incumbent Liberal party, defended Ontario forestry regulation as among the most sustainable in the world.
David Ramsey is Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs (Photo courtesy Ontario Forest Industries Association)
In fact, there has been a groundswell of discontent from First Nations across the north over resource extraction without revenue sharing.
Ramsay noted that in early September, at the very end of his four-year mandate, he appointed retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Iacobucci to lead discussions with Grassy Narrows representatives on forestry issues. Talks are to start in November.
Amnesty's Craig Benjamin, author of the Grassy Narrows report, says Iacobucci's appointment was a positive step. "At the same time there's no guarantee the talks will proceed quickly. Where is the protection of their rights in the interim?" Ramsay said Iacobucci has the power to order interim protection measures.
Grassy Narrows first made news in the early 1970s, when it was discovered that a pulp mill had released mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system for almost a decade. The Anishinaabe community's cash economy, based on commercial fishing and guiding, was wiped out.
Many residents were found to have elevated mercury levels and even now, 35 years later, symptoms of mercury poisoning persist. These include deterioration of motor control, memory loss, speech impairment and diminishing eyesight, as well as miscarriages and children born with developmental disabilities.
However, the Amnesty report notes, it has been extremely difficult to persuade the federal government of any link between these symptoms and the known exposure to mercury. Health Canada, the federal department of health, has argued that the symptoms could be linked instead to diabetes, multiple sclerosis or alcoholism.
The Amnesty report calls on the federal government to undertake a health study to determine whether mercury poisoning is the source of severe health problems at Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong First Nation.
The mercury poisoning is not the only tragedy to have hit Grassy Narrows. In the 1950s, the construction of two hydroelectric dams changed water levels, reducing the important wild rice harvest and habitat for furbearing animals.
In 1961, the federal government started relocating the people from family-based land holdings spread out over the river system to a densely packed subdivision-style settlement on the road to Kenora. The new reserve has more limited access to the waterways and poor soil that cannot sustain traditional gardens.
Like indigenous people across Canada, the people of Grassy Narrows also suffered the forced removal of children to residential schools - a practice that only ended in the 1970s - the persecution of indigenous religious societies, and the exclusion from federal Indian status of women who married non-status men, which ended in 1985.
Anti-logging blockade at Grassy Narrows (Photo courtesy University of Waterloo)
"Everything about being Anishinaabe is the land," Roberta Keesick, a Grassy Narrows trapper and grandmother says in the report. "Without the land that's pretty well cultural genocide."
The relationship is protected by treaty - in this case, Treaty #3, signed in 1873, covering some 6,000 square kilometers where Asubpeeschoseewagong families have had traplines and hunted moose and harvested berries for generations.
Most forestry in Canada takes place on provincial Crown land, which is public land, and much of which is also within the traditional territory of a tribe.
The provincial government licenses forestry companies to harvest designated areas. Clearcutting is Ontario's preferred harvesting method in the northern boreal forest and the province allows the largest clearcuts in Canada. In 2005-2006 the average clearcut size was 48 to 2,618 hectares and the maximum reported clearcut was 25,536 hectares.
In 2002, when Abitibi Consolidated prepared to clearcut close to the boundary of the reserve, the community rose up in protest. Mainly young people and women, they blockaded a logging road. The blockade still stands, the longest political action of its kind in Canadian history.
For more information:
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.