Wigwam Wisdom

Thursday August 20th

What a beautiful spot! Early morning sun hits the far shore of Grassy Lake and a cool breeze is keeping the bugs away. I’m sitting in a camp chair enjoying the day’s first coffee. Crows call back and forth. Dogs come to visit for a scratch. A carload of early risers passes with Johnny Cash singing “I walk the line because you’re mine.”

We forget that we belong to each other. We forget that we are all connected in this web of life. We forget that every time we take – something needs to be given in return. A pinch of tobacco reminds us of how precious is the circle of life that holds us and sustains us.

The Trapper’s Centre where our gang is staying – our international delegation I should say – sits on a hill overlooking the Pow wow site and a new Elder’s Lodge being constructed. I can see the Fire Hall and a community hall where we’ll gather later for a community meeting with government officials about the Mercury situation.

A golf cart sized boulder splashed with red paint sits beside me. Is it vandalism I wonder – or a declaration of the red path’s way? “Walking the red path” is about taking care of the circle in the old ways.

“Out here we’re Anishnabek people” Judy told us last night. We’re sitting around a fire in a wigwam constructed of birch saplings and heavy canvas tarps. As the day’s light seeps away, she tells us the history of the blockade and the struggles to sustain Canada’s longest running civil disobedience action. “Inside the Reserve we’re under the Indian Act. Out here in the forest, in our traditional territory, we follow our ancient ways.”

“I lived with logging all my life,” she explains. “It was just a part of our lives here. Following logging trucks all the way to town. Seeing them in the ditch. Hearing the growl of them day and night. But when they started to put in a new road just on the edge of the reserve – it seemed they’d be cutting right on the edge of our homes. One of our trappers told us with tears in his eyes about how he’d gone out to find a swath of clear cut right through his trap line.”

She explains that it’d be like us coming home to find our house gone. “That’s the only way to explain to you how it would feel.”

“It was late November 2002 and we came out as a group to stop the trucks from going up the road. The Police came to tell us what we were doing was illegal but we stayed. My brother spent the whole night here. While the rest of us went home to our warm beds, he stayed. When the next truck came he went out on the road and put his arms wide and just stood there. He said he didn’t know what else to do. We have had many acts of heroism here. The next day young people came out and lay down across the road in front of the trucks.”

The blockade camp runs along the turnaround road the truckers would use after giving up on getting through. There’s a couple of small log cabins and some tent frames along the road. In the trees hang coloured cloths. Judy explains. “When someone fasts and prays, they put tobacco in the cloth and hang them as a sign and as a way of creating a circle of good feelings and protection from negativity.

“We have women’s gatherings. We have youth gatherings. People come out here to pray. But right now we’re having trouble keeping the young people interested. My kids used to beg me to take them out here – there was always something happening – but now they’re losing interest. Larry (Morrissette) says it’s the effects of assimilation. He taught me about neo-colonialism where we start acting like colonizers on our own people.”

As my eyes follow the wood smoke up through the wigwam opening, I see a satellite passing blinking over.

“CPT’s been with us all the way. When the blockade first started I knew we needed help. I googled “peacemaking” and found the Christian Peacemaker’s website. I called the number and spoke with David Pritchard in Toronto. He said that they’d worked in many countries but never Canada. I invited him to come and see so he brought some Mennonite elders up from the States with him to help decide if this was a place they could be.

“It was getting late in the evening and we were wondering where one of the Mennonite men had gone. When he finally came back he explained that he had been listening to the loons calling. He said it reminded him of when he was a boy and his grandfather would take him out on a lake to hear the loons. But now, he told us, the loons are gone. Industry drove them away. He told us he cried when he heard the loons here. He told his CPT friends, “we need to be here.”

“It’s all the small ways that they help us out – practical things – just helping out like one of us,” Judy explained. “I feel safer when they’re here. It’s encouraging to know that we’re not alone. And when the next crises comes, we know they’ll be here with us then.”

“What should we do to help when we go back home?” one of us asks. Judy pauses to think. She says “When you see an injustice – step in – don’t step back. If it’s a homeless person being harassed – or whatever. Helping them, helps us. It’s all part of the circle.

“You could do a bake sale, or sell some t-shirts, or tell our story and encourage people to do what they can to help. I understand Maslo’s hierarchy of needs. Lots of our people are busy just trying to get by. They can’t spend any time or money on this – so that’s why I ‘m here. I speak for them.”

Judy’s working on the Mercury Advisory Team that the Provincial government has set up to monitor the long term effects. She tells us that only a few people like her have received compensation for the Mercury poisoning. She tells us about the Japanese doctor who came to Grassy several times over the decades. How he’s now died and other scientists who loved him have taken up his work.

“Our doctors say ‘it could be this or it could be that’ when we bring them our children with seizures and crossed eyes and speech impediments. Mercury goes straight to the brain when it enters the body.”

All of this information is offered to us in a quiet calm way. It’s a story that she’s been living now for over forty years. I think of the rage that would burn in me if it was my child poisoned by a corporation that never gave a second thought to my children’s health when they dumped chemicals upriver from my home. I think of the rage that would burn in me when the people elected to serve my interests found excuse after excuse to not act. I think I’d lose hope when I see them throw bags of money at all the side effects without ever dealing with the root cause of the problem.

I forget that these are my children. I forget that these are my brothers and sisters. I forget that these forests are the lungs of the Mother who sustains us all.

I am weeping now. Tears stream. Anger burns. And I know that neither will change the hearts of those who have made this mess and those who claim sincere interest while collecting taxes from the companies that feed my own consumer ways.

That splash of red paint on the boulder speaks to me.

Recent Comments


  1. Brenda Peddigrew

    What immersion, Allan! What stark insight! I look forward to how it will continue to unfold in your view of the world…

  2. Rodney Smith-Merkley

    Allan, I am now in Nova Scotia and sadly hearing the same story with the pulp mill in Pictou and Pictou Landing First Nation. Thank you for your sharing.

    • bedfordhouse551

      it’s a global story isn’t it Rodney. Yours in the circle. allan


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