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Grassy Narrows declares logging ban in its territory ahead of forest management planning

Officials with Grassy Narrows First Nation say they're asserting and enforcing sovereignty over their traditional territory, including permanently banning future industrial activities like logging, mining and mineral staking, at a time when Ontario is set to start drawing up the next 10-year plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest.

Declaration sets out what community says is and isn't allowed in its territory

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde (second from left) and Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle (second from right) were at the signing of the Grassy Narrows declaration in the community on Tuesday. (Supplied by Rudy Turtle)

Officials with Grassy Narrows First Nation say they're asserting and enforcing sovereignty over their traditional territory, including banning future industrial activities like logging, mining and mineral staking, at a time when Ontario is set to start drawing up the next 10-year plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest.

The northwestern Ontario First Nation, located about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, has maintained a blockade against logging trucks on its traditional territory since 2002. It has also gone to court to prevent Ontario from issuing logging and mining permits. Logging has effectively ceased in its territory over the past decade.

The community says that the province, in 2017, also committed that no logging would take place in its territory until spring, 2022 when the current forest management plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest expires; drawing up the guidelines to replace it is set to start in 2019. The signing of the community's declaration on Tuesday was done with an eye on the future, according to Chief Rudy Turtle.

"Our position is that we don't want our territory to be included in that planning ... what we're thinking is we're going to do our own planning," he told CBC News.

Forest management plans effectively dictate how woodland areas in Ontario are managed, including guidelines around logging, development of infrastructure, like roads, as well as sustainability and renewal.

Most of the forest includes the community's traditional territory, Turtle said.

The declaration calls on the province to "withdraw our Anishinabe Territory from Forest Management Planning and mineral staking and to cancel all wood supply commitments from our Anishinabe Territory which were made without our consent." It also bans:

  • Industrial logging
  • Mineral staking and mining
  • Hydro damming
  • Oil and gas extraction and transportation
  • Any other uses that don't have the community's "free, prior and informed consent"

It also lays out approved uses for the land by Grassy Narrows members, which include:

  • Traditional gathering, including hunting, fishing and trapping
  • Harvesting firewood
  • Building cabins, lodges, docks, snowshoes, canoes and other traditional items
  • Small-scale logging
  • Sustainable harvesting of plants and animals
  • Maintenance of existing infrastructure, like roads, bridges, culverts and portages
A number of other uses for non-members would also be permitted with prior approval, according to the declaration, including travel through the area, hunting, fishing and boating, as well as eco-tourism, scientific study and environmental remediation.
Grassy Narrows is about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, Ont. (CBC)

A spokesperson for Minister Jeff Yurek told CBC News the minister was aware of the declaration, understood the community's concerns and will engage with the First Nation.

In an emailed statement to CBC, Yurek said the government "take[s] the concerns of Grassy Narrows First Nation very seriously," and that  the ministry "ensures the views of Grassy Narrows First Nation and other Indigenous communities are considered in all decisions regarding forestry and natural resource management."

The ministry did not say how future forestry planning would take Grassy Narrows's declaration into account.

Turtle said he is scheduled to meet with Environment Minister Rod Phillips this week and hopes to meet with Yurek soon. The declaration calls on the provincial and federal governments to "join us at a new table to recognize and implement this declaration under our leadership," as well as calling on industrial companies to respect it.

'It affects our health, it affects our way of life'

Decades of industrial activity in the area have wrecked havoc on the health of the community's population, Turtle said, including mercury-contaminated effluent discharging by a Dryden, Ont., mill upstream in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The community has also raised concerns that mass harvesting of trees contributes to the mercury load in the environment, particularly when it's done near lakes, rivers and streams; it's also disrupted members' trap lines.

"It's just the damage it's done to our territory that we're very concerned about," Turtle said. "It affects our health, it affects our way of life."
Rudy Turtle is the chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation. (Supplied)

"In addition, I could say that, with any development, whether it be forestry, mining or any other activity, we've never benefited," Turtle continued. "From forestry, we never received one cent, so it's not very good for us."

"Our way of life has been under attack by residential schools, flooding, relocation, mercury pollution and racism. What remains of that way of life is under threat from industrial logging," the declaration said, adding that non-compliance will result in the community having "no choice but to take peaceful action, along with the support of our allies, in the forest, markets, legislatures, streets and courts to assert our sovereignty and rights as the Indigenous people of this land."

It also calls for compensation for "for the damage that was done to our people and our environment by decades of logging against our will," adding that roughly 20 million trees were harvested from its territory over two decades without consent.

Declaration has full support of national assembly

The declaration was witnessed by the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, who was in the community Tuesday for the signing.

"All governments must recognize, respect and honour our rights and responsibilities to our traditional territories," Bellegarde was quoted as saying in a written release. "This includes the right to decide what happens in our territories."

"Grassy Narrows First Nation is pushing forward on their right to determine their own future, and forging a path towards meaningful reconciliation even in the most difficult of circumstances."

With files from Jody Porter