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For the Water, For Future Generations

Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence fighting pipelines (and more) in Treaty 3 Territory

Peak Magazine, Volume 54, Issue 2

March 2015

Asubpeeschoseewagong—[Early this Spring], activist Clayton Thomas-Muller spoke to a small crowd at the Ne’chee Friendship Centre in Kenora, Ontario. The event, hosted by Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence, and opened by the Grassy Narrows Women’s Drum Group, was billed as a Public Forum on the Energy East Tarsands Pipeline. The event was not intended to be an information session on the technicalities of the pipeline nor on the various Energy Board processes that many environmentalists are focusing on. This meeting of mostly Anishinabe women was more focused on solidarity between frontline Indigenous communities across Turtle Island and on a spiritual imperative to protect the water for future generations.

Thomas-Muller’s current job title is as Extreme Energy Campaigner for 350.org, and his resume includes working with Idle No More, Defenders of the Land, the Indigenous Tarsands Campaign, and the Indigenous Environmental Network. His recent trip to Treaty 3 Territory comes on the heels of an anti-pipeline convergence in Halifax that was also focused on solidarity between frontline Indigenous communities. On the keynote panel moderated by Thomas-Muller, held on Mi’kmaqi Territory was Judy DaSilva from Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) in Treaty 3, a member of both the Grassy Narrows Women’s Drum Group and Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence.

Thomas-Muller says that, “the role that groups like Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence play for our communities is providing a front line of defence for our land, water, human health and collective rights. They are an expression of community self-determination and provide an important role in supporting our elected leadership in what can be difficult decisions to resist harmful developments like the Energy East Pipeline proposal. Sometimes our provincial and territorial chiefs advocacy organizations can only take things so far and thats were social movement based infrastructure like this group can also be important.”

Treaty 3 Chiefs were recently in the headlines when Grand Council Treaty 3 announced an all Chiefs declaration that stated (amongst other things),

We reaffirm our inherent rights as the original government of these lands and sacred responsibilities to protect the water, the lands, the air, sacred sites, rivers, streams, animals, birds and medicines in all its forms in all parts of Anishinaabe Aki…

Our health as individuals, communities and a Nation depends upon clean, safe drinking water. The right to clean and safe drinking water is a fundamental human right. Many decisions of the Crown, federal and provincial, have violated our fundamental human right and our natural right to clean and safe drinking water…

We are joined together to declare to our Nation, as the political leadership, we are determined to ensure that no oil or bitumen shall be transported through Anishinaabe Aki without our full, prior and informed consent.

At the recent Energy East forum in Kenora, when asked about the Chiefs’ declaration, Thomas-Muller said that it is up to the grassroots to ensure that political leadership “makes the right decision,” which is to say, community organizers have an opportunity to use grassroots mobilization to ensure that leadership holds firm on their commitment to protect the water and the land, and to let the federal and provincial governments know that grassroots land defenders will protect the land and water regardless, through various forms of grassroots mobilizations and direct action, including ceremony and prayer.

Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence are already deeply engaged in that mobilization effort. On Family Day, February 16, the group held (then) the largest public demonstration in Kenora since the height of Idle No More, as Anishinabe women and youth sang and drummed, and were joined by members of Transitions Initiative Kenora and Winnipeg Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement in a picket of one of the downtown’s busiest intersections and a ‘walk’ through the downtown core. On March 16 an even larger action was held by grassroots people of Grassy Narrows against proposed logging in their Territory. On March 22, Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence held a traditional Anishinabe water ceremony and another public demonstration in Kenora for World Water Day.

“World Water Day [was] a day to bring awareness to people in the Kenora area on the threats to this very precious life giving source,” says Judy DaSilva.

Each Day, industry looks to the Kenora area’s abundance of water in terms of production for consumption. Our simple purpose on that day [was] to educate the people about what is threatening this water; there’s mercury poison in the water on the English and Wabigoon Rivers near Grassy Narrows, a [rare earth] mine was approved near Wabaskang, Goliath mine near Wabigoon is looking at mining gold, southern Ontario is always eyeing our area to put their highly toxic nuclear waste in the precambrian rock, Transcanada’s pipeline is going through the process of consultation and approvals to push the oil  through these lands. These are the kind of serious water issues people need to look at in Kenora and in Treaty 3 if they want to keep the water pristine for the future generations. We need to be good ancestors.

As DaSilva said, the Water March was about more than just the Energy East Pipeline. Local organizing meetings have also focused on protecting the local waterways, and all water, from a variety of forms of industrial pollution, and discussions have centered on a spiritual imperative to protect the water for youth and for future generations. Part of the brilliance of Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence and other likeminded, similarly organized and inspired groups of mostly Indigenous women, is that by making the focus about a traditional imperative to protect water, they have made space to bring the similar struggles of various isolated and remote communities under a single banner, and given them the momentum of the national anti-petroleum movement. It is necessary to share that spotlight in this way because the threats to land and water are diverse and complexly interconnected.

These interconnections are important. For example, one of the regional issues highlighted at the Water March in Kenora was the Save Big Falls campaign, organized by members of the Namekosepiniik Anishinabe (Trout Lake Anishinabe, mostly members of Lac Seul First Nation). Big Falls is an important site on their traditional canoe route to Trout Lake, which is part of the headwaters of the English River System (the same English River system that flows through Asubpeeschoseewagong Territory). The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry wants to put a hydro dam at Big Falls against the wishes of the Namekosepiniik Anishinabe and Lac Seul First Nation whose Traditional Territory the Falls are within. The energy from that proposed dam would be used to power (amongst other things) regional pumping stations for the Energy East Pipeline, as well as mining expansion and other development in and around Red Lake, Ontario.

The gold mines in Red Lake (less than 100 kilometers north of the Grassy Narrows reserve) are already the largest and most profitable on the continent and are scheduled for large scale expansion over the next decades. One of the attendant pieces of infrastructure development is a proposed superhighway from Red Lake to Winnipeg—the construction of new transportation corridors being one of the most impactful forms of environmental disruption, with respect to habitat, and as a harbinger of further development. The scale of environmental destruction at Red Lake is somewhat unimaginable. It has been described by the Financial Post as ‘the Fort McMurray of Ontario’.

Red Lake is immediately to the north of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (ANA) Territory. The route of the Energy East Pipeline is directly to the south. ANA, more commonly known as Grassy Narrows First Nation is a well-known community when it comes to land and water protection. The Grassy Narrows blockade against clearcut logging in their territory has been in place since 2002 and is known as the longest standing Indigenous blockade in Canada. Grassy Narrows is also one of the two communities primarily affected by one of the largest industrial environmental disasters in Canadian history, the mercury poisoning of the English and Wabigoon River systems, caused by dumping from the Dryden Pulp and Paper Mill in the 1960s and 70s.

While the Red Lake mining boom sits at the headwaters of the English River and the northern end of Asubpeeschoseewagong Territory, to the south, Transcanada’s pipelines and the CN Rail lines carrying both tarsands bitumen and explosive natural gas both cross the Wabigoon River right at its mouth. There is an Energy East pumping station proposed right on Wabigoon Lake—the same lake that the Dryden Pulp and Paper Mill dumped more than ten tonnes of mercury into more than 40 years ago.

There is also another new mine proposed right on Wabigoon Lake, unapologetically called the Treasury Metals’ Goliath Gold Mine. Both the gold mine and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s (MNRF) long term Forestry Management Plan for the so-called ‘Whiskey Jack’ Forest—which entails widespread clearcutting of Asubpeeschoseewagong Territory, and could see cutting start as early as April 2015—if implemented, would drastically increase the mercury levels in the still poisoned river system which is only in the very early stages of natural recovery. Both new mines and new clearcuts would also do much other damage to the land and water than just raising mercury levels, too: habitat and ecosystem disruption, waste water leaching and dumping, air pollution, soil depletion, contributions to climate change, etc.

The type of threats posed to the waters of Asubpeeschoseewagong, however, are not unique. The nature of industrial development and resource extraction all across Turtle Island is such that there are literally hundreds of First Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose territories are laden with and/or circumscribed by environmental devastation and impacts on human health wrought by economic development projects—mining, oil and gas, forestry, industrial scale agriculture, infrastructure projects, etc. And while these projects happen on the doorsteps of Indigenous Peoples, on their Nations’ Territories, all of these projects contribute to the broader scope of environmental devastation that inevitably impacts all Peoples, through climate change, the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the poisoning of the air, land and water.

So one of the reasons why Thomas-Muller (and others) has shifted so much of his efforts to this campaign, is that it isn’t just any one community’s water that is threatened—it is everybody’s, since the pipeline crosses hundreds of river basins and waterways on its route, and further, tarsands development remains one of the single most devastating contributors to climate change on the planet; fighting pipelines and oil-by-rail remains one of the most effective ways to challenge tarsands expansion, especially at a grassroots level. However, Thomas-Muller never fails to stress the importance of solidarity with the People of Fort Chipewyan, the primary downstream community most directly impacted by the tarsands; this solidarity is also stressed by the women of Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence.

One of the things that is so impressive about Grassroots Indigenous Water Defence’s organizing efforts against the pipeline, which is another part of why Thomas-Muller was here, is that they are lead by Anishinabe women from communities that have first-hand experience with both the impacts of, and organizing against the impacts of tainted and destroyed water supplies, who understand the importance of organizing for the water, for future generations—women from, amongst other places, Lac Seul, Shoal Lake, and Grassy Narrows.

waterwalk 2015

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