Despite promises to the contrary, Canada remains opposed to fundamental Aboriginal rights and continues to devalue Indigenous lives. This is manifest in one of the most egregious case studies of contemporary colonialism in Canada.
Grassy Narrows First Nation is home to over 950 Ojibwa people. It has also been the site of a fierce struggle for Aboriginal rights. Currently the First Nation is continuing a defiant 16-year blockade against logging on their territory.
In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the blockade violated both Treaty 3, to which Grassy Narrows First Nation belongs, and the Canadian Constitution. The court unanimously asserted Ontario has the right to dictate the fate of resources within the traditional territory.
Canada’s limited view of Aboriginal rights is they emanate from various treaties and court rulings. Within this framework Aboriginal rights are conjured and legitimized by the state. Moreover, these rights are not uniform since contested Aboriginal rights must be proven in court and existing rights can legally be infringed upon, so long as the guidelines of the 1997 Supreme Court case Delgamuukw are followed.
However, Canadian imperialism can still be undermined through Canadian law. But a radically different view of Aboriginal rights must be employed. This argument is made by U of M professor of native studies Peter Kulchyski. In his view, sections 35 and 25 of the Canadian constitution — respectively stating that existing Aboriginal rights are “recognized and affirmed” and that Aboriginal rights will not be repealed or diminished — are powerful tools for asserting Aboriginal rights.
For Kulchyski, Aboriginal rights, like customary rights, are developed and asserted through exercising those rights. Aboriginal rights would not be required without the colonizer, since it is he who has made the practice of an Indigenous paradigm an untenable offence. Thus Indigenous peoples have these rights simply in virtue of being Indigenous. These rights, acquired through struggles against the colonizers, stem from practicing an Indigenous paradigm. These rights are lived, not given.
Grassy Narrows First Nation’s blockade is then an affirmation of an inherent Aboriginal right, though unjustifiable by the Supreme Court. Judy Da Silva and Roberta Keesick, writing on behalf of the women of Grassy Narrows First Nation, claim that 75 per cent of Grassy Narrows First Nation’s forest has already been exploited by the logging industry. The blockade protects the Indigenous paradigm connected to the forest. Canada’s opposition to Grassy Narrows First Nation demonstrates the ongoing struggle of Indigenous peoples and the totality of Canadian imperialism.
Ontario’s continuing attempt to clear cut this forest not only threatens Aboriginal rights but also the wellbeing of those dependent on the area’s water. The mercury released from coal-fired power plants is rained down and trapped in forested soil. After clearcutting, the mercury runs into the water. The Canadian government refuses to examine the environmental impact of clearcutting.
Grassy Narrows First Nation has been beset with indifference for their lives and their rights by the Canadian government for five decades. From 1962 to 1970, the Dryden paper mill dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River upstream from Grassy Narrows. This polluted fish and drinking wells. The federal and provincial governments claimed as late as 2016 that the river would clean out the mercury naturally. Despite reports as early as 1984 stating government action was needed. Still nothing has been done.
The Canadian government’s utter disregard for Indigenous lives is so perverse that until recently it has not allotted resources for researchers to intensively study the health impact of the mercury. Rather, the bulk of research done has been by a Japanese research team that in 2012 found at least one resident who was born with mercury poisoning and, in 2007, two children born with brain cancer and who experienced seizures.
At long last a new study released in May of this year — funded by Health Canada and the Ontario government — and led by mercury expert Donna Mergler found that, compared to other First Nations, the mercury poisoning had significantly impacted Grass Narrows First Nation’s general health. The study linked the relatively high suicide rate, academic performance and poor nutrition among youths to the mercury poisoning. Ontario has promised to spend $85 million to clean the river, but no government has announced any plans to deal with the health crisis caused by Canadian colonialism.
Today there are four drinking water sources in Grassy Narrows First Nation. Two of them are unsuitable for human consumption. The other two are under water boil advisories. No serious solution to the present crisis will be handed over by the Canadian state. Aboriginal rights asserted through practice and struggle remain the most viable way to subdue Canadian imperialism.