Breakthrough in Canadian Indigenous rights flashpoint

An Indigenous Canadian community’s longstanding campaign to stop clear-cut logging on its land has prompted a multinational paper company to stop buying wood fibre from the area.

On 27 February, Boise Inc announced that it would “stand in support of Amnesty International’s recommendation” and not buy any wood fibre from the traditional territory of Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwest Ontario until the community has given its consent to logging.

“Boise has done the right thing,” says Craig Benjamin, campaigner for the human rights of Indigenous peoples for Amnesty International’s Canadian section. “The company has set an example that we hope other companies and the Province of Ontario will follow.”

The Anishnaabe people of Grassy Narrows rely on the forest for hunting, trapping, harvesting food and other activities central to their culture and their livelihood. In 1873, they signed Treaty No 3 with the Government of Canada, recognizing that they had the right to pursue those activities throughout their traditional land use area.

Amnesty International’s ongoing research at Grassy Narrows has confirmed that the province of Ontario has allowed large-scale logging to proceed without adequate human rights protections and in violation of its own obligations under Canadian law.

On 2 December 2002, the youth of Grassy Narrows laid down in the path of industrial logging machines, blocking access to their traditional territory. Their action sparked the longest-standing Indigenous logging blockade in Canadian history.

In January 2007, Grassy Narrows community leaders declared a moratorium “on further industrial activity in our Traditional Territory until such time as the Governments of Canada and Ontario restore their honour and obtain the consent of our community in these decisions that will forever alter the future of our people.”

Courts have repeatedly ruled that governments in Canada have a clear legal obligation to carry out meaningful consultation in every instance when considering plans that could impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The Supreme Court of Canada says that when the rights of Indigenous peoples are at stake, there is a duty to consult “in good faith and with the intention of substantially addressing the concerns of the aboriginal peoples whose lands are at issue.”

Despite this, Ontario’s government has done little to protect the rights of the people of Grassy Narrows, who have had control over their traditional lands and territories taken from them before.

In the 1950s, the building of two hydro-electric dams flooded large areas of land. Wild rice beds central to their culture were wiped out. Sacred sites and the local fishery were also disrupted.

In the 1970s, a pulp and paper mill contaminated their rivers with an estimated ten tonnes of mercury. This has caused long-term health problems.

Today, about half of their traditional territory has been logged to supply mills run by the transnational corporations Abitibi Consolidated and Weyerhaeuser.

In September 2007, an Amnesty International paper detailed Grassy Narrow’s history of disastrous social and economic upheaval as a consequence of government decisions. The paper called on the province “to respect the moratorium declared by the people of Grassy Narrows and to halt all clear-cut logging and other industrial development in the traditional territory until free, prior and informed consent has been given.”