Aboriginal Justice delegation - Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows, Ontario): September/October 2010

Delegation to Asubpeeschoseewagong and Kenora, Ontario
September 24 – October 6, 2010


Delegation Members:  Julian Gutiérrez, co-leader (Dosquebradas, Risaralda, Colombia), Peter Haresnape, co-leader (Christchurch, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom), Jill Foster (Montreal, Quebec, Canada),  Jared Ingebretson (Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States), Daniel Mengeling (Crystal Lake, Illinois, United States), Melanie Penner, AJT Intern (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Joel Rash (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Kathy Thiessen (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), Amy Van Steenwyk (Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States)


Orientation to Kenora and CPT, Friday, September 24-Sunday, September 26

            Our orientation to Kenora began with meeting former chief Tommy Keesick and his friend Calvin Chicago, also a former chief.  They met us at Anishinabe Park, an historically significant area.  It was the site of a six-week long occupation in 1974 by Anishinabe people from local reserves along with allies who came to lend support.  At the time, Tommy was in his thirties and Calvin was seven years old.  They shared some details that we hadn't heard in reading about the occupation beforehand, such as the support of many local churches which brought them blankets and food.  At one point it was necessary to load all the children, including Calvin, into boats to take them down river to Fort Francis for their safety.  Tommy and Calvin have formed the Treaty 3 Citizens Coalition and Participants to work towards greater transparency and accountability.  They invited us to a rally scheduled for later in the week.  Tommy also shared some stories from residential schools, our delegation's first opportunity to hear about them firsthand.  Many of those who were adults at the time of the occupation have passed away, most notably Louis Cameron in April of 2010.  Tommy is aware that he is one of the few left who can tell a firsthand account of the occupation and he has had some recent heath trouble too.  He attributes his recovery from addiction, stress, and illness to frequent participation in sweat lodges which he recommended to us. 

            We took advantage of being in Kenora over the weekend to visit local churches as well as explore the area more on foot.  Many people visited Jubilee Church, a church that focuses on meeting the needs of urban Aboriginal poor, practically as well as spiritually.  There was plenty of opportunity to meet and talk to members and visitors there around a meal following the service.  Kenora being the small town that it is, we encountered some of these people again in our short stay there.  Later that day we had time to talk about our faith journeys, discuss the role of faith in CPT,  learn more specifically about the Aboriginal Justice Team's work and share some of our reasons for joining this delegation.


Connecting and Learning in Kenora, Monday, September 27 – Thursday, September 30

            On Monday we went to court to see for ourselves the dynamics at play in the legal system of this small town.  As expected, the vast majority of defendants were of First Nations descent.  The few times that a non-Aboriginal defendant came before the judge the interactions were notably different:  more eye contact, more expressions of sympathy, speaking directly to the defendant rather than to the lawyer.  In one case an Aboriginal, wheelchair-bound elder with no prior record was treated sternly, without directly addressing him, in contrast to a non-Aboriginal defendant facing the same charges to whom the judge apologized for handing down the minimum sentence.  We also learned more about the challenges Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder adds to any case.  In one situation, the defendant (Aboriginal) clearly was not able to process the legal jargon spoken to him, yet no attempt to ensure his understanding was made.  Translation also was not available to a defendant who needed it when we were in attendance. 

             Next we met Sallie Hunt, a lawyer at Northwest Community Legal Clinic (NCLC) who also is President of the Board of the Kenora Sexual Assault Center.  She did not grow up in Kenora and because of that has an outside perspective.  She observed, “We're almost two societies at times, passing each other like ghosts.  Non-aboriginal people live in one space, Aboriginal people live in another space.”  NCLC practices poverty law, helping with appeals, Social Assistance claims, and employment and housing issues. Appeals can be made to the Independent Review Board, but not in all cases, for example, not if it involves Treaty 3 police officers.  There is also a Human Rights Commission which puts the burden of investigation and proof on the person filing the complaint – a daunting task for most people, particularly people with few resources to begin with.  Despite Prime Minister Harper's apology for residential schools and its effects, government financial support of programs working for Aboriginal benefits and rights has slowed to a trickle or been cut completely.  Social Assistance benefits are still not equal to what they were prior to 1995 and the average Ontario Works benefit is not enough to cover rent and food, particularly since much of the affordable housing in Kenora has been closed down due to health codes or redevelopment.    Women living on reserves do not have property rights in the case of separation, making them particularly vulnerable to abusive situations and homelessness.  Money that goes to reserves for secondary education and other purposes sometimes gets reallocated which means people end up on waiting lists for the financial means to continue their education.

            We visited the Fellowship Centre, Kenora's only emergency shelter, to meet with Colin Wasacase, retired educator, activist, storyteller, public servant, and former residential school student and principal.  Colin gave us some cultural background to help us understand him and objects that have special significance to him:  tobacco pouches as gifts for elders, sweet grass and sage to burn and release pain and sadness, Eagle feathers to instill strength, courage, peace and love, and a white Eagle feather, one of only two, that keeps him connected to his twin sister who has passed away.  He also gave us historical background and explained why sharing the land made sense to Aboriginal people as opposed to owning it or giving it away. As he said, “We are never owners of the land.  The Creator allows us to take care of it for a while.”  Colin attended Residential School for all of his education, later returning to teach and eventually to be principal.  Although residential schools were purported to provide stability for children of transient tribes, he observed that they also indoctrinated people.  Colin never heard anyone say it was forbidden to speak their native languages, but it was never taught or used.  He tried to bring change from within, accepting higher positions until he found himself working in education at the federal level.  Recalling that time of his life, Colin said,  “I was a token.  That was really why I quit government.  My face became plastic.  I could not smile.  When I smiled I felt like my face was cracking.  It was really not me.”  Since that time he has dedicated his life to community leadership and involvement in and around Kenora, currently sitting on various boards and supporting others with political aspirations to get involved as well.

            Most of the day Wednesday was set aside for a workshop in undoing racism and oppression led by Stephanie Landon and Marie Lavalley from the Kenora Sexual Assault Center.  Part of this workshop focused specifically on the Aboriginal experience of racism and oppression and how that has caused many communities untold suffering as their roles in society, their loved ones, and their land have all been lost to a great extent.  We also examined the ways that racism can permeate group dynamics in any group or organizations.  Using role-play, we practiced ways to be allies in difficult situations that could arise on a CPT delegation. 

            The next morning started with a trip to the Ne-Chee Friendship Center where we met Don Copenace who has been the director there since 1998.  Ne-Chee means friendship in Ojibwe and is one of 114 Friendship Centers across Canada.  The Ne-Chee Center's core funding is from the government, other programs are funded provincially as well.  A few programs are offered there at the center, the majority however are outreach, either in homes, at other agencies or at the courthouse.  One area of outreach is the local jail which is chronically well over capacity with only floor space for some inmates.  Approximately 90% of the inmates are of native descent.  A Street Patrol  has been making the rounds since the Friendship Center first opened.  They patrol every day, particularly around Anishinabe Park, a common route used to walk between Kenora and the nearest reserve, Rat Portage.  Another program is  a new alternative secondary school that has had a significant number of graduates when compared to the small percentage of First Nations students that graduate yearly from Beaver Brae High School.   Don talked some about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he appreciated in that it focused not so much on forgiveness but on finding ways to move toward healing.  We learned from Don that the Aboriginal population is growing much more quickly than other groups, a significant factor in a small town like Kenora, with ten First Nations communities within an hour drive.

            From the Ne-Chee Center we went to the Treaty 3 Citizens Coalition and Participants Rally at a crossroads of two major highways just outside of Kenora.  Signs were displayed, such as “Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) is to blame.”  Turnout was quite small, which was clearly disheartening because there were people who had promised to be there, but failed to show up.  The leaders sense that there is political pressure on supporters to stay away.  Once again, we had a glimpse into the complex relationships within Aboriginal communities.  We were able to talk at more length with Calvin, Tommy and their independently named grand chief, Lana Kooshet.

            Later we went to the Kenora Sexual Assault Center (KSAC) where we were able to see Stephanie and Maria again and meet other members of their staff:  Mercedes Alarcon (director), Jen Beilner and Katelyn Kelly.  We learned that violence affects the lives of nearly all First Nations women.  Aboriginal women between the ages of 25-44 are five times more likely to die from violence than non-Aboriginal women.  Every year KSAC staff has clients with whom they are working die of unnatural causes.   In response to this reality, they have started a girls' group for teenage daughters of women who have been murdered. KSAC's stated goal is to eradicate the social conditions that contribute to violence against women and children.  Towards this end, they lead workshops, provide group and individual counseling, support family and friends of victims, advocate for clients and accompany them when necessary.  They maintain a 24-hour crisis line which is often the entry point for women to learn of the other resources available to them.  Another important aspect of their work is outreach to First Nations communities, often with youth in schools on the surrounding reserves.


Grassy Narrows, Asubpeeschoseewagong , Friday, October 1 – Sunday, October 3

            When we arrived at Grassy Narrows reserve, we went directly to the general store run by Joe Fobister and met with him in his home down the road.  He described events leading up to the impasse the community is at in their mediated conversation with the Ministry of Natural Resources.  In the past, the blockade has been an effective and peaceful way to halt logging in a specific area.  Unfortunately, the pause in logging is not yet permanent and Weyerhauser is likely to resume logging soon to meet the needs of the local mill.  Unsustainable clear-cut logging continues in other areas of their traditional territories without community consent.  Many members of the Grassy Narrows community would support sustainable logging practices provided that they leave intact habitat where medicinal plants can flourish and animals native to that region can thrive.  Joe reiterated the possibility that the community will once again have to resort to direct action.  In that case CPT would be called on to observe and bear witness as the community members pursue justice through resistance to the unethical actions of MNR.

            Lorna and Andy “Shoon” Keewatin showed us to the Trapper's Lodge where we were staying.  Shoon introduced us to the traditional way of processing wild rice.  In late August, he uses sticks to gather rice in a canoe, then roasts it and grinds it.  He invited us to help in the grinding process.  He placed a canvas over a  hole in the ground and put a portion of the rice on the canvas in the hole.  Some of the men put on moccasins and danced on the rice to loosen the husks.  This was not traditionally a woman's role, so Shoon set up a giant rustic mortar and pestle he had carved from a tree trunk that everyone could use to accomplish the same goal.  Traditionally people wait for a windy day to toss the the rice in the wind and let the chaff blow away.  We used a fan for lack of wind, then repeated the grinding and winnowing steps until most of the grains of rice were bare.  Finally, we picked through it by hand, removing any remaining husks.  As we were processing the rice, we were also preparing a huge stew for a community meal that evening that we were hosting at the Trapper's Lodge.  We used vegetables from the Grassy Narrows community garden, venison that had been donated to the Trapper's Lodge and made bannock to serve with the stew. About ten community members joined us at picnic tables outside as we watched the sun set over the lake at the bottom of the hill. 

            Before leaving the reserve on Sunday we were able to meet with Judy da Silva at the blockade site.  She has been part of resisting logging on the reserve since before the blockade, at least 20 years.  The community was shocked when the logging roads were built so close to the heart of the reserve and after pursuing the regular avenues available to them, were left with no alternative but direct resistance.  She observed that the Anishinabe name for the lake at the blockade site aptly means “Where the road ends.”  Although there has been no violence at the site of the blockade, Judy's sister Roberta along with Chrissy Swain were brutally arrested for camping alongside another logging road a few hours from the blockade site.  There were children present to witness the arrest and Chrissy has suffered permanent damage to her arms from being handcuffed excessively.   Judy expressed a sense of abandonment at the many organizations that were supporters but have moved on to become involved in other areas and issues, often without processing that decision with the Grassy Narrows community or even communicating their intentions.  She hopes that CPT will continue to send delegations to Grassy Narrows and Kenora, not only to support the blockade when necessary but especially to work on undoing racism in Kenora. 


Final Days in Kenora, Monday, October 4 – Tuesday, October 5

            Monday morning we visited MNR and met with Shawn Stevenson, the Supervisor of the English River Area and a forestry intern, Josh Millar.  One goal of meeting with MNR was to serve as a reminder that international eyes are on the community, particularly regarding the issue of continued logging in the Whiskey Jack Forest despite calls to halt until there is informed consent to resume.  When we asked about the clear-cutting method that we have seen in photos and video footage, Shawn clarified that the method they use now is no longer technically clear-cutting because a certain amount of residual trees and brush is left behind.  He said that he is not aware of any negative consequences to this large-swath cutting and re-seeding method of forestry  except possibly that animals could more easily be hunted and killed with less forest standing.  This seemed to be in stark contrast to our concerns for the loss of diverse,  medicinal plant life and the flight of native animal populations that follows the type of logging they continue to employ in the Whiskey Jack Forest.  We asked what happens when a third party logging company does not abide by regulations and Shawn assured us that there were fines, penalties and trips to court in store for any company not following regulations.  When questioned further it became clear, however, that these fines would be paid to the Crown and that are no established means of making restitution to the First Nations communities that also have treaty rights over these lands.  The Whiskey Jack Forest is currently being managed directly by the Crown since Abitibi gave up its license, so the duties of overseeing all logging in the forest falls back to MNR, which Shawn described as overtaxed and only able to handle the extra workload because of the decrease in logging since  the economic downturn. 

            The delegation decided our direct action would be to attend and support the Sisters in Spirit Vigil being held in Kenora Monday night to remember the more than 500 Aboriginal women who are missing or known to have been murdered, half of them since 2000.  Their photos, along with descriptions of what is known of their cases, covered one wall.  Those in attendance sat in rows of circles surrounding the Grassy Narrows girls' drum circle seated in the middle with Judy da Silva and her sister Roberta.  They sang and drummed between speaking and performances by elder Joe Morrison and artist Alice Sabourin.  As the girls took turns singing loudly over the drumming, we recalled Judy saying, “I try to never tell my daughter to shut up or even to be quiet.  I want her to be confident to speak her mind.  I don't want any more of these young girls' voices to be silenced.”