Aboriginal Justice delegation - Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows, Ontario) - August 2011

Trip Report for CPT delegation to Treaty #3, August 2011

-- by Rebecca Weaver Yoder

Members of the delegation: Merwyn De Mello (Ossining, New York, USA), Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), Julián Gutiérrez (Risaralda, Colombia), Anneli Hemminger (Ispringen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Dieter Hemminger (Ispringen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Rebecca Johnson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), Carrie Peters (Pine Grove Mills, Pennsylvania, USA), Muriel Schmid (Salt Lake City, Utah, USA), Tamara Shantz (St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada), Meredith Lane Thomas (Bellefontaine, Ohio, USA), Rebecca Weaver Yoder (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA).

 Friday, Aug. 12th

            Friday began the first day of the CPT's Aboriginal Justice Team Treaty #3 Area delegation, with ten delegates arriving to the First Baptist Church in Kenora, Ontario. Amid introductions, orientation, and logistics, it was noted that with just ten persons we represented five different countries. This number would grow with the arrival of another delegate later on.

As we began to get to know one another, a common interest was shared in the importance of learning the history of the First Nations. It was noted how overlooked this piece of history has been and continues to be today. Throughout the next continuing days delegates would begin to learn how meaningful simple observation and listening would be in the process of engaging this history. Some persons expressed that their interest in this delegation stemmed from a need to show respect for the land and people where their own ancestors settled and where many continue to live to this day.

Saturday, Aug. 13

            Morning began with rusty voices stirring the large cool sanctuary of the First Baptist Church with the tune, “Wade in the Water.” We sang this song as part of our morning reflection, a practice that would become a daily activity. Julián, one of the two delegation leaders, began the morning by inviting the delegation to consider the idea of an Ecological Footprint. The purpose of this activity was to address ideas surrounding our own consumption.  Discussions that followed included ideas about decreasing our consumption, as well as issues of privilege and income when talking about what kinds of materials we consume.

            A second activity about Cross Cultural Communication was introduced by Julián, and we began the workshop with a written narrative by a former CPTer. Delegates took turns reading paragraphs about the CPTers experience with communication, cultural sensitivity, and their white privilege. The reading of this narrative began a conversation among our group about current and past effects of colonialism and white oppression.

            One particular issue we focused on was the making of mistakes. It was acknowledged that mistakes are frequently made when engaging in communication across cultures. Some proposed that while mistakes are inherently painful for both the individual and the receivers of their action, the mistake can be a seed for important learning. One person said, "Possibly a mistake can enable one to be humbled and learn, especially if they belong to a privileged group."  This idea would become very important to our delegation as we would continue to learn and undo harmful judgments, racism, and assumptions.

            That same afternoon, our delegation walked through the downtown area to the Kenora Fellowship Centre. There we were met by Colin, a charismatic First Nations man and friend of CPT. He explained the grave history of colonialism of the indigenous lands of Canada. He spoke about the implementation of residential schools and stated that this was when “they started to paint us white.” This meeting left us with a somber sense of the deep hurt and terror that European settlers and colonizers have left upon this land and its people. When the meeting was finished we were welcomed to stay for the centre's street picnic and fried fish. Persons who came to the shelter for food were mostly all First Nations. We stayed for another hour to talk and eat informally. This experience remained as a reminder about the stark demographics of Kenora's lower class and the oppression that continues today.

We finished the day with the documentary, "As Long as the River Flows."

Sunday, Aug. 14

            We began this day by attending the Sunday morning service at First Baptist Church before departing for Grassy Narrows. Shoon, a resident and friend of CPT, greeted us upon arrival and welcomed us to the Trapper's Centre where we would stay the next few nights. We then took a short drive to a small cleared, grassy area, known as the main blockade site. At this location, Grassy Narrows residents have upheld a nine year long blockade of logging trucks into the Whiskey Jack forest.  We observed the small cabins built around the area, and then sat down to learn more about CPT's history and current activities. Some mentioned that being at the site was particularly moving because they could sense that there was a deep meaning to the area. We observed the road leading to the forests and saw a large sign that read “Ministry of No Respect.” (Reference to Ministry of Natural Resources)

            That evening we viewed the first half of the documentary, “The Scars of Mercury.” This film introduced us to more of the history of Grassy Narrows and the community’s struggle with rights to trapping. We learned about the mercury contamination of the local fish from toxins released by a nearby company and how that poisoned many local First Nations. This was a strong reminder of the Anishinabe people's long history with struggling to survive against powerful outside forces.

Monday, Aug. 15

            Our visit to the Kenora Court House was both an interesting and sobering experience. Prior to visiting we had been told that indigenous persons are often treated more harshly in the court system and that this is reflected in the demographics of the Kenora Prison--a facility mostly filled by First Nations inmates. Our time in the court house was followed by a visit to the Northwest Legal Community Clinic, where we met with Sallie Hunt, a staff lawyer. She once again reminded us that marginalization of Aboriginal persons within Kenora is very strong, and therefore the services of the clinic are used by mostly Aboriginals. Sallie's fervent descriptions of racial profiling and governmental neglect for First Nations communities outlined some key issues they face including; homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and high numbers of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Sallie noted that many of these current issues relate back to the effects of systemic abuse including forced residential schooling.

Tuesday, Aug. 16

            The next morning we gathered with fresh memories of the previous day's meetings, to begin what would be a day full of deep internal processing and reflection. Stephanie Landon, an articulate Anishinabe woman and friend of CPT, gathered us together for a workshop on undoing racism and colonialism. We first began by sharing our hopes and fears for the workshop, as well as past experiences with racism or colonization that have particularly influenced us. Following the sharing, Julián led us in a "privilege walk," an exercise meant to help persons to realize privileges that they may or may not have in relation their surroundings. Questions are used to determine privilege, such as, "“Are you surrounded by people who speak your native language as a first language?”  By the final question, our group was staggered along a spectrum, with those of the most privilege having taken the most steps. We were then asked to speak about how we felt about our individual positions. It was clear then, how different our lives are based on our given privileges.

            Stephanie then led us in a simple exercise where we embodied indigenous persons as they experienced the catastrophic terror of being invaded by white settlers. Each of us received a role; such as child, parent, elder and were then gathered around special belongings we had brought. Slowly, one by one, an outside source invaded and began taking away our people and possessions.  Stephanie's way of facilitating the exercise was powerful as she methodically asked individuals how they were feeling during the activity. By the end, our minds and bodies were filled with painful emotions and a glimpse of history's reality. Many expressed a deep appreciation for this simple activity that was so unexpectedly powerful. At this time, we were once again reminded how much there is to learn from observing and being present in such a vital, yet overlooked history. Charles Wasagase, a First Nations teacher, who was present at the workshop then welcomed us to participate in a smudging ceremony with Sage, a sacred plant among Aboriginals. We gratefully received this generous invitation and let the smoke of the sage cleanse our bodies. This day's exercise would become one of the most pivotal experiences of the delegation. 

Wednesday, August 17

            The next day we traveled to the Kenora Museum with an eagerness to continue the process of undoing racism and colonialism. The new insight that we had been given the day before had opened a space within us that felt vulnerable, determined, and reflective. Our visit to the museum was followed by a deep disappointment as we realized that the museum held little information or historical exhibits about the indigenous tribes of the region. The history presented featured only the white settlers and colonizers of Kenora. Our delegation gathered over lunch to discuss our feelings about the morning visit, and our frustration with historic and current exclusion of First Nations people from published history.

            Our afternoon focused on another visit, this time to an organization geared towards Aboriginal women who have experienced cases of sexual violence. Five staff members met with us at the Kenora Sexual Assault Centre to discuss what their primary focus is and how they work to combat various forms of violence. This small grassroots organization was surprisingly a lively, driven group of women that expressed a great interest in explaining their depressing yet important work. They mentioned how marginalized and vulnerable Aboriginal women are within a society lacks adequate funding for programs like theirs. Another staff member explained how KSAC is unique because it helps Aboriginal women by use of traditional healing practices rather than clinical medication. They explained that while many first responders objectify and accuse women of their circumstances, the centre instead counsels and supports women during and after investigatory processes.

            Later that evening we gathered for a discussion about our learning from the day and a reflection on the undoing racism and colonialism workshop. During this time we grappled with new feelings of tension as delegates expressed intent desires to connect on a deeper level with local First Nations people. We were fortunate to have Stephanie, the facilitator of the previous day's workshop, with us for the discussion. Stephanie patiently listened and acknowledged persons desires, but then began by explaining a little bit about cultural differences. She mentioned that while some persons may feel they are not connecting, they may actually be in ways they do not suspect. She referred to cultural norms of speaking for the First Nations, telling us how calm reactions and expressions are often mistaken for lack of interest or enthusiasm. Our group then recognized the importance of patience with personal relations and careful listening when being present with others.

Thursday, August 18 

            The following day we visited the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre in Kenora. Our group was welcomed in by two staff members who described the centre's work with assistance programs for Aboriginals. These free programs include educational assistance, employment advising, justice advocacy, and health assistance. The two women explained how they depend greatly upon a tightly knit network of specialized programs, to which they can refer their clients. As we listened and asked questions, one of the women suddenly asked us if we knew anything about the residential schools. We nodded, remembering articles, books, and stories that we had heard prior to this meeting. She then nodded seriously and restated what we would continue to be hear by many; that the residential schools are to blame for the many social issues First Nations face today. Alcoholism, domestic abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, cultural and language loss are just a few of the problems they then mentioned. We left this meeting with hope for the programs that these two women spoke of.

Friday, August 19

            After an evening of preparation and research, our team gathered together to meet with two representatives from Weyerhauser, an international logging company with a local branch in Kenora. We had passed the processing plant several times on our way to Grassy Narrows, and had seen the immense piles of logs spanning several parking lots. Members from Grassy Narrows had spoken with us about the company's wish to clear cut within their own forests. We knew this to be a worrying issue for the community because of clear cutting's devastating history and ongoing destruction of First Nation territory. However, we wanted to meet with the company to find out more about why they're present here.

            When the representatives arrived we listened to them speak about their company's facility, values, goals, and standards. Mike and Carol spoke clearly and confidently about their interests and hopes for the forests of Treaty #3, saying that the bio-diverse area was rich in fiber and within close proximity for  transportation of logs to the mill. Words such as sustainability, were commonly referred to when asked about their logging practices. They assured us that their company puts great priority into restoring the lands from which they cut. Despite their articulate presentation and impressive knowledge of logging, we had our doubts about the truth behind their intentions. Claims were made that Grassy Narrows in particular, has been unresponsive in their attempts to negotiate a business arrangement. As of now, Weyerhauser is not legally permitted to log directly within Grassy Narrows territory. The two representatives expressed their frustration that the community members refuse to "come to the table" on this issue. This was a worrying sign for us, because it meant that the company does not see Grassy Narrows refusal to let companies log their land as a justified and permanent answer. Several of us were also concerned to note their subtle implications that these community members cannot communicate in a format they deem sufficient. To us, this felt like a staunch reminder of how white colonizers assume their form of communication is standard or the only acceptable way. After hearing community members intelligently and articulately voice their concerns about depleted wildlife, razed forests, racism, colonization, it was clear that this company's priorities did not include time for listening to the First Nations.

            Short after our meeting ended, we left for what would be another discouraging hour. Sean Stevenson, a representative from the Ministry of Natural Resources agreed to meet with us and present his understanding of the area. While we asked questions about the licensing process for logging and trapping rights within Treaty #3 territory, he insisted on talking extensively about forestry, terrain, and the regions of Ontario. This was information that was educational and informative, but was evasive of our questions. He vaguely responded to issues concerning First Nations and also refused others by saying that it was classified information. We maintained our valued respect and did not press him when refused an answer. As we left he thanked us for our interest, but we could not help but feel unheard, dissatisfied, and sobered by the magnitude of power weighed heavily against Aboriginal rights and survival.

Saturday, Aug. 20

            Early the next morning, breakfast preparation for the annual Pow-Wow in Grassy Narrows began. Our group had agreed to help out and was hard at work frying bacon and eggs. Locals stopped in to say hello and greet delegates as they walked back and forth delivering fresh new pans to servers. The day that followed included another visit to the blockade site, attendance at the Pow-Wow, and an evening fish fry. Many of us agreed that being back on the reservation was rejuvenating and comfortable. As we watched the dances or joined in the intertribal dance, we could feel the pride of persons wearing their intricately designed regalia. To us, this experience in Grassy Narrows was particularly meaningful and life-giving. Several times, persons mentioned how grateful they were to find so many unexpected opportunities to be present and learn from community members. A few delegates learned to weigh, cut, skin and fry fish while others had time to simply sit and chat with residents.

Sunday, Aug. 21

            The following day began with a visit to J.B. Fobister, one of Grassy Narrow's renowned trappers. We had been anticipating this, after hearing that a decade-long law suit involving J.B. had been settled earlier that week. The law suit ruled that the Government of Ontario can no longer authorize logging and mining within Treaty # 3 nor control trapping rights. J.B., Shoon, and another community organizer had been honored the night before at the Pow-Wow with a celebratory dance.

            As the morning rain slowed, we crowded into J.B.'s living room to hear him speak about trapping, governmental regulations and current social dilemmas for First Nations people. J.B. spoke with a slow and contemplative pace as he answered questions and explained his lengthy history with governmental interference in First Nations territory. His account of the most recent law suit was sobering as he mentioned the discrimination and prejudice they encountered in meetings and court. Despite the victory, many community members are still weary of the permanency of their protection. With an edge of frustration, J.B. explained how difficult it is for Aboriginals to gain recognition from the government. Often he says, Aboriginals go unnoticed until an interested white person says something. We listened quietly, allowing space for J.B. to speak more about racial privilege and colonization of indigenous land. As our visit ended, J.B. expressed his hope that we could learn something from our visit, we responded that indeed we would.

Monday Aug, 22

            On our final morning of the delegation, we gathered once more in the Trappers Centre to reflect upon our learning's, insights, and hopes for our next steps. Each person brainstormed ideas about what they could do upon leaving Grassy Narrows. Many noted a strong desire to read and learn more about the indigenous tribes of their home areas. Others mentioned that they would write about their experience and tell others formally and informally.

            Rebecca then led us in a discussion about being allies and what that means for indigenous and non-indigenous persons. Specifically we focused on how we, as non-aboriginals, can support and advocate for indigenous persons. We discussed the term "ally", and questioned what this role really means. In the article, "Jen Margaret Winston Churchill Report 2010," the author writes about the limitations of the term and challenges the common beliefs about allies. Instead, she writes, "Being an ally is a practice and a process - not an identity. It is an on-going practice that is learned and developed through experience. " As our group talked about the article, we reflected about our own learning's from the past week and J.B.; that true teaching and advocacy comes directly from the First Nations, who own the right to speak for themselves. Our role, we explored, is to continuously learn to be allies, supporters and assisters. We must speak only for our own selves, from our own experiences, and from the context and history of our ancestors. ###