20 Years of Resistance: Grassy Narrows' Land Defenders

It’s a story of resistance.

On December 2, 2002, members of Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, an Indigenous community located in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest, decided that after more than a decade of meetings, protests, petitions, letter-writing and legal actions they needed to do more to stop the industrial logging that was taking place on their territory without their consent.

They set up a campfire on the side of a logging road about three kilometers from their community. In the freezing temperatures of a northern winter, youth, women, land users, and Elders put their bodies on the line to physically block logging trucks from passing.

So began the longest running First Nations’ logging blockade in Canadian history.

On Dec. 2, 2022, Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) commemorated 20 years of resistance.

Silvia Nickerson

Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation or simply “Grassy”, is located in the north-western part of Ontario, Canada. They succeeded in kicking out the world's largest newsprint company, preventing all industrial logging on their 7,000 square kilometer homeland, saving over 15 million trees, and helping to build the movement for Indigenous sovereignty and land back. In the summer of 2008, Grassy Narrows and its supporters forced AbitibiBowater to give up its license to the Whiskey Jack Forest and commit to no logging without consent from the community. Recently, a US logging multinational, Weyerhaeuser, committed to not use wood from the area that Grassy Narrows is protecting. That was the final regional mill to make the commitment, bringing Grassy Narrows’ territory another big step towards secure, long-term protection. However, the Ontario government continues to grant mining exploration permits on Grassy Narrows’ territory without their consent and is proposing to re-open parts of the territory to industrial logging in the coming years. The blockaders remain vigilant.

“I think our mindset of acceptance changed after we heard the stories of broken-hearted hunters whose hunting grounds had been completely clear-cut in one week. The logging had accelerated to the point where the land began to look like a desert with shards of sticks from shredded trees on the desolate landscape. Humanity’s gluttonous, unhindered consumerism had hit at the heart of Anishinaabe country and we weren’t going to let it continue.”

—Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows mother, grandmother and community activist

Their 20-year blockade is significant in its own right. However, Grassy Narrows accomplished this not only while being subjected to decades of colonial policy resolute in its end goal of the erasure of Indigenous peoples, but while confronting what is described as "one of the worst cases of environmental poisoning in Canadian history." The contamination in this community of about a thousand residents has affected three generations.

Between 1962 and 1970, the Dryden paper mill dumped 10 tonnes of mercury that was generated from bleaching paper into the English-Wabigoon River System. The mercury made its way down the English-Wabigoon waterways where the community relied on fish for sustenance and their livelihoods, causing widespread and multi-generational health problems for Grassy Narrows’ residents. Once ingested, the health impacts of mercury never leave the body. It even passes from mothers to their children via the placenta. Ninety percent of the people tested in Grassy Narrows experience symptoms of mercury poisoning, including tremors, headaches, neuromuscular effects, memory loss and, in extreme cases, death.

In the 1980s, despite its own scientists’ advice, the Ontario government decided not to clean up the river and told Grassy Narrows that the river would eventually clean itself up. Yet, mercury concentrations at dangerous levels are still present in sediment and fish, causing ongoing health and economic impacts for the community. A study released in 2017 reported that tests showed significantly higher mercury levels downstream of the mill compared with upstream locations — roughly 130 times higher. Present-day fish mercury concentrations are amongst the highest recorded in Canada.

“This fight is not yet done. We will never give up. We will never stop protecting our land.”

—Chief Rudy Turtle, Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation)

In 2018, Chief Turtle and the Grassy Narrows’ council issued the Grassy Narrows’ Land Declaration, which bans logging and mining on their territory. It also designates their territory as an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area.

Grassy Narrows First Nation's Land Declaration bans logging and mining in their territory, and designates these lands and waters as an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area.

Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation)

The next generation of youth from Grassy are also raising their voices. This past summer (2022), several community members made the more than 1,000-mile trek from Grassy Narrows to Toronto to take part in the annual “River Run” – a walk organized to bring justice and awareness to those suffering from mercury poisoning. They are demanding fair compensation for all residents of Grassy Narrows for the ongoing mercury crisis, support to help the community restore its way of life, and for an end to all mining and logging in their territory.

To commemorate the 20 years of action, Grassy Narrows land defenders are calling on supporters and allies to echo their call. You can go to https://freegrassy.net/take-action/ to find out how you can help.

To learn more, go to FreeGrassy.net or watch/listen at:

About the Authors

Julee Boan

Manager, Boreal Partnership, International Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.