Grassy Narrows Road Blockade 2002: A Look at the Greater Picture of Indigenous Struggles

The Grassy Narrows struggle against Abitibi-Consolidated is not a static event that simply occurred as a result of unfavourable circumstances within a particular community. Although the Ojibwa are taking a stand against a distinct corporation which is attempting to extract a certain resource, their road blockade emerged out of a greater, ongoing battle for equality that numerous Aboriginal communities have been engaging in for centuries. It was not long after the appearance of settlers that indigenous persons began to challenge the processes of colonialism. As a result of the decline of the fur trade and the emergence of industrial capitalism, Aboriginal land quickly became the target of colonial governments and has yet to cease in contemporary times. During the most recent phase of capitalism-neoliberalism-the process of accumulating wealth by dispossessing persons who inhabit areas of natural resources has ‘sped up’ and consequently left Aboriginal communities living in a colonized situation in which they cannot escape (Gordon 2011: 68). The abundance of Aboriginal sites of resistance and their commonalities across Canada are not coincidental. Aboriginal oppression and their subsequent struggles are directly linked to the Canadian state’s underlying processes which seek to monopolize control over the nation’s resources in order to achieve capitalist goals.

From an economic standpoint, Canada would not have been able to become a globally competitive force without the use of indigenous lands because majority of the nation’s resources are located on reserves (Gordon 2011: 67). Resources such as the trees found within the Whiskey Jack forest on the Grassy Narrows reserve are pertinent to the sustainability of capitalism. Capitalism rests upon a nation’s ability to accumulate wealth through the production of goods; thus, the Canadian state has prioritized imperialist strategies over alternative methods which would accommodate Aboriginals in order to more efficiently secure resources. The naked theft of indigenous land has continuously held superiority over upholding treaty agreements or the more nuanced ‘duty to consult’ and this is the driving force behind many, if not all, Aboriginal struggles.

Even if the Canadian state did give value to treaty agreements, they do not seek to achieve fair or equitable negotiation of lands and rights with indigenous persons. Canada only entered into the treaty process to facilitate rapid capitalist development or in some cases as a means of dealing with Aboriginal resistance to land expropriation (Gordon 2011: 69). Prior to the road blockade, Grassy Narrows attempted to rely upon Treaty 3 to maintain control over the Whiskey Jack forest. In April of 2000, a few community members initiated a lawsuit against the Ontario government which argued that Abiti Consolidated was infringing upon their constitutional treaty rights to hunt and trap on their lands and thus should not be allowed to clear cut the forest. However, the government did not acknowledge their claims until over 10 years later [Keewatin v. the Minister of Natural Resources, 2011], and even then they did not rule in their favour. The Ojibwa’s situation clearly illustrates how the lethargic bureaucratic response to treaty claims allows for the active extraction of the resources in which the treaties are meant to protect.  The Grassy Narrows experience directly speaks to the numerous other Aboriginal communities as their similar struggles demonstrate the state’s overall indifference to address the negotiations set out in their treaty agreements.

The ‘duty to consult’ is also problematic as it requires the state to commit to a meaningful process of consultation in ‘good faith’ and is almost never invoked. From an Aboriginal perspective, such a duty is never in good faith as the whole strategy behind it is to undermine indigenous interests (Gordon 2011: 97).  Due to the fact that it is almost never invoked, it is evident that the ‘duty to consult’ is merely another legal tool that the state established in a meek attempt to deal with Aboriginal resistance. The Canadian state ultimately acts within what Locke would call its ‘prerogative’ because it is utilizing its power to act according to discretion, for the ‘public’ good, against the prescription of law (Neocleous 2008: 15). The state’s decision to overlook Aboriginal treaty rights and the duty to consult can be justified as being in the interests of the ‘public good’ because the state is doing so in order to fuel the capitalist economy and provide economic stability for the rest of the population. This further de-legitimizes Aboriginal struggles and places them within a framework where their contention is classified as an inconvenient challenge to the economic prosperity of the nation.

Aboriginal communities therefore engage in dissent because it is the only other avenue in which they can draw attention to their oppression. By blockading the entrance roads to Grassy Narrows, the community members were able to halt the ongoing extraction of their resources and this subsequently created a ‘blockage’ in the nation’s imperialist goals. Aboriginal activists become hard to ignore once crucial economic infrastructures such as roads or bridges are shut down (Gordon 2011: 107). Nonetheless, although the Ojibwa’s blockade may have been successful in deterring Abiti-Consolidated from accessing the Whiskey Jack forest, their resistance then became a catalyst for the expression of embedded racist sentiments (Linden 2007: 34).

The concept of “whiteness” is deeply rooted in colonial history and has created an everlasting binary relationship between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ or the ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’. Because Aboriginals have never totally acquiesced to the ‘civilizing’ process, they have rejected the ‘pacification’ of the state which has extensively tried to shape their behaviour through residential schooling, the banning of indigenous customs and the robbery of their resources. As a result of such failures, the state considers Aboriginals’ mere presence to signal criminality and believes that they are in constant need of close monitoring and state regulation, especially during elevated times of resistance (Gordon 2006: 38). The state utilizes what Foucault calls the ‘conditioning relation’ where police must ensure that the relation of forces will not be turned to the states disadvantage (2009: 315). In the case of Grassy Narrows, police responded with covert tactics of monitoring to fulfil their ‘conditional relation’ and make certain that protestors would not become an overwhelming threat to the Canadian state.

Overall, Grassy Narrows is one of the multiple Aboriginal communities across the nation who is struggling for dignity, equality and self-determination, whilst the Canadian state is solely concerned about intensifying its colonial project (Gordon 2011: 78). Indigenous nations are Canada’s very own ‘Third World’ colonies that belie the image of a tolerant and caring country as they suffer from mass impoverishment, high rates of disease and exploitation of their lands (Gordon 2011: 67). The frequency of occupations are the result of the nation’s continuing disinterest towards resolving Aboriginal tensions (Linden 2007: 26) and thus leads to an important question: will the state ever want to effectively mitigate Aboriginal issues or will it continue to abuse its monolithic authority to ensure that capital remains more important than people?

References

Foucault, Michel. 2009. Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978. New York: Picador. Pp. 311-328.

Gordon, Todd. 2006. “Producing Capitalist Order: Police, Class, Race and Gender.” Pp. 29-51 in Cops, Crime and Capitalism. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

Gordon, Todd. 2011. “Empire at Home.” Pp. 67-133 in Imperialist Canada. Winnipeg: Arbetier Ring Publishing.

Linden, Sidney. 2007. “Primer on Aboriginal Occupations.” Pp. 15-27 in Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry, Volume 2. Ipperwash Inquiry. Retrieved March 11, 2008 from http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/ipperwash/report/vol_2/pdf/E_Vol_2_CH02.pdf

Neocleous, Mark. 2008. “The Supreme Concept of Bourgeois Society: Liberalism and the Technique of Security.” Pp. 11-38 in Critique of Security. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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