In a letter to Chief Rudy Turtle of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek First Nation, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said it has abandoned its plans to open up a portion of the First Nation’s traditional forest to commercial logging for the next 10 years
CBC News: For more than two decades, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation have blockaded the logging roads near their homes to protect the trees on their land.
They drove south to march in front of Queen’s Park and they sued the province of Ontario when it opened their traditional lands to clear-cutting. And now, it seems, they’ve won.
In a letter to Chief Rudy Turtle of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek First Nation, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said it has abandoned its plans to open up a portion of the First Nation’s traditional forest to commercial logging for the next 10 years. Instead, the province will ban logging throughout the no-harvest zone, an area that encompasses approximately 75 per cent of the Whiskey Jack Forest, designated in 2017 after Grassy Narrows sued the province to prevent clear-cutting.
“This is great news,” said J.B. Fobister, one of the original blockaders who now leads the community’s youth Land Protection Team. “We’ve been working hard since 2008. We’ve had a few exciting moments. But this is a good score for us.”
The province’s reversal enshrines a de facto logging ban that has existed since all the logging companies and mills in the area stated they will not harvest lumber from Grassy Narrows land without permission. “No commercial forest harvest would be planned” under the 10-year forest management plan, states the ministry letter. “No harvest could be authorized in the area.”
Richard Lindgren, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, called the logging ban “very significant and long overdue.” “To my knowledge, this may be the first time the province of Ontario has set aside (such a large portion) of a forest management unit for 10 years,” said Lindgren, who represented Grassy Narrows in its lawsuit against the government.
The ministry is still keeping the option open to log in the future, however, after the current plan expires in 2034. The letter says the government will monitor the forest in the no-harvest zone, which will involve “the identification of eligible forest stands, modelling wildlife habitat and establishing sustainable harvest objectives.” “It’s a 10-year decision,” said Lindgren. “It’s a great idea and an interim step. But it doesn’t address the long-term fate of the land.”
In response to questions, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said it is listening to Indigenous partners and forest industry experts to identify shared priorities. “This approach reflects the variety of complex interests and concerns raised by Indigenous communities during reassessment of the non-harvestable area, ranging from historic impacts to potential economic and community benefits,” said ministry spokesperson Ed Mick in an email.
In recent years, attention has shifted from logging to other environmental concerns at Grassy Narrows, including a decades-long legacy of mercury poisoning and new threats presented by unauthorized mining claims. After a 2016 Star investigation revealed that mill workers had buried barrels of mercury in the ground, the province pledged $85 million to clean up the toxic pollution caused by “gross neglect.”
Since Premier Doug Ford was elected in 2018, mineral prospecting has soared in Grassy Narrows. A 2021 Star investigation found more than 4,000 mining claims, covering an area double the size of the city of Toronto. “Decades of industrial extraction forced on Grassy Narrows have had a devastating impact,” Chief Turtle told the Star last December. “It is past time to start on the path of reconciliation by respecting our control over our own land so that we can heal the land and heal our people.”
While the new forest management plan represents a relatively long-term win, the future of Grassy Narrows will continue to be under threat until permanent local authority over its use is established, said Fobister.
How mercury poisoning has affected Grassy Narrows First Nation
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“The people will still want to be vigilant. They’ll maintain the blockade until things are written in stone,” he said.
In 2018, Grassy Narrows made a land sovereignty claim over the no-harvest zone, prohibiting clear-cutting, mining, the damming of rivers, and oil and gas extraction.
Last year, in recognition that Indigenous people are best positioned to be stewards of their land, the federal government pledged $341 million to help First Nations across the country establish Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs). These natural preserves are initiated by local Indigenous groups, but must be recognized by a province or territory to achieve legal standing.
“IPCAs are the path forward,” said Lindgren. “Grassy Narrows has already exercised and vocalized its authority. Now it’s time to start negotiations with the Crown.”
Grassy Narrows continues to push the Canadian government and the international community to recognize its sovereignty claim as an IPCA.
“We won’t rest until our territory has permanent protection that respects Grassy Narrows law,” Chief Turtle said last year. “Babies who were born during the blockade are now adults … we will always be here, and we will never give up on defending our land.”