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Environment and existence at heart of Grassy Narrows struggle.

Strong Hearts, Native Lands: The Cultural and Political Landscape of Anishinaabe Anti-Clearcutting Activism


(State University of New York Press, 2012)

ON DECEMBER 3, 2002, a group of young people from Ontario's Grassy Narrows First Nation laid a tree across the logging road leading past their reserve, starting what remains today as the longest running Indigenous blockade in Canada's history. It was an act of defiance, born out of long-simmering frustration with the corporations clearcutting their territory, and with the governments and ministries violating Treaty Three by sanctioning the destruction and pollution of the land. Anna Willow spent twelve months at Grassy Narrows over the first two years of the blockade. Strong Hearts, Native Lands concludes a well-rounded anthropological investigation into the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism.

Willow's book is a rich, informative narrative that locates the blockade as a complex space that stands for environmental protection as means to political self-determination and cultural continuance. For the Anishinaabe blockaders--and ultimately for all people--the "environment" is place of history, culture, politics and ecology. To destroy the "environment" is to erase our communities.

The first three chapters of the book set the historical context for the blockade. The Grassy Narrows community holds inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights to self-determination and cultural continuance on their lands as the Indigenous occupants on their territories at the time of treaty. Aboriginal and treaty rights have been recognized by the Supreme Court and are affirmed in Canada's Constitution. Nonetheless, rights violations by federal and provincial governments are legion. The community witnessed coerced relocation, an imposed Indian Act governance system, residential schooling, imposed provincial harvesting restrictions, incarceration and deep-seated racism coming from the mill town of Kenora--the end of the line for the logging road.

Mechanized industry brought further treaty abrogation, as environmental and social disturbances were visited on the community and its territory. In the 1960s, industrial mercury contamination of the local river system brought congenital Minamata Disease to Grassy Narrows as well as mass unemployment. Mercury contamination forced the closure of surrounding touristic fishing lodges where local families worked seasonally. In the 1980s and '90s, the logging road ushered in accelerated clearcutting by multinationals without meaningful consultation. Clearcutting compromises the community's ability to harvest traditionally. The logging blockade began in 2002, in conjunction with a legal challenge to Ontario's authority over Grassy Narrows' territory, which wrapped up at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014. The province won, but with the strong caveat that it must meaningfully consult and accommodate.

The final four chapters detail the blockaders' frenetic efforts in the first two years to effectively oppose the province's "Forest Management Plan." As an anthropologist, Willow is interested in relationships that develop out of the exigencies of Indigenous activism. Who are the players? Who takes the lead? What are the strategies to attain broad public awareness and support? Willow witnessed as blockaders identified with other Indigenous activists in the worldwide environmental movement. But the blockade was always fiercely local and was as much about the politics of treaty implementation and economics as it was about ecological conservation. Members debated unified resistance strategies and a frenzy of cultural revitalization initiatives were undertaken at the blockade site, some ongoing today. Willow deftly details the important relationships formed with non-Indigenous environmental and human rights organizations, Aboriginal rights advocacy groups, academics, and diverse media.

Strong Hearts, Native Lands is timely and relevant analysis as Canadians witness Indigenous resistance against fracking, oil sands production and distribution, mining, and clearcutting. But as Indigenous resisters remind us, we are all stakeholders, and the stakes for environmental and economic sustainability are high. Willow concludes with the didactic reminder that "our future is shared." The Anishinaabe of Grassy Narrows show us that we must start the way forward by honouring our relationships with our histories, our ecologies and, ultimately, with each other.
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Title Annotation:Anna Willow's "Strong Hearts, Native Lands: The Cultural and Political Landscape of Anishinaabe Anti-Clearcutting Activism"
Author:Duplassie, Ryan
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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