Building Infrastructure and Grassroots Power in the Mishkeegogamang and Saugeen Communities
Notice of Correction: The author of this article apologizes for a quote misattributed to Tom Wassaykeesic in paragraph #10 of the original version of this article appearing in BASICS Print Edition #31, the correct version of which appears below.
by Laura Lepper
In February 2013, members of the Commission in Support of Indigenous People’s Struggles (of the Canadian chapter of the International League of People’s Struggles) travelled to join fellow members from Mishkeegogamang and Savant Lake on their traditional territories, 1,700 km north of Toronto. We saw the apartheid-like conditions that lead people to call the region the “deep North.” Everyone we met shared a story of severe displacement, dispossession and social trauma at the hands of state-supported projects such as residential schools and the mining and forestry industries.
In order to strengthen the alliance between grassroots struggles of Indigenous activists in different nations, and build a common front among people’s struggles from all directions, the Commission was formed at the 2013 ILPS ‘Right to Exist, Right to Resist’ conference. It is currently composed of delegates from struggles in the native communities of Six Nations, Mishkeegogamang, Savant Lake, and the groups Anishinabek Confederacy to Invoke Our Nationhood, CUPE 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group, and the Anti-Colonial Working Group of the Law Union of Ontario. Delegates organized a trip to the northern Ojibway communities out of a deep understanding that building an effective Commission must come from strong relationships built out of shared understanding from on-the-ground experience and concrete struggle.
Gary Wassaykeesic of Mishkeegogamang and Darlene Necan of Savant Lake introduced us to people in their communities and the nearby cities and towns. The trip began in Thunder Bay, with the Sleeping Giant rock formation always on the horizon. Our last visit was in Pickle Lake, the most northern community in the province that has year-round access by road. Pickle Lake airport is the entry point for much of the region’s mining and many of the 49 fly-in-only Indigenous communities in the region such as Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Attawapiskat.
We traveled to Savant Lake, a small settlement of Ojibway people of the Saugeen Nation, to see Darlene’s trapline. A trapline is an area of ancestral land where a family will hunt and trap animals for food. In 2004, Darlene’s mother was kicked off her trapline because Abitibi Bowater/Resolute was spraying herbicide, which was poisoning traditional food sources. Her story is not unique among her people. Darlene shared stories of Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), along with treeplanters, burning cabins and destroying camps put up by Anishinaabe people.
There is special interest in the land around Savant Lake, since CN Rail goes right through the town. While industry wants to transport gold through Savant and prospect on Darlene’s land, many members of the Saugeen Nation are impoverished and essentially homeless. There is also interest in Savant because of its proximity to the ‘Ring of Fire’ – an area of muskeg swamps in the James Bay Lowlands. Ontario has plans for massive escalation of mining development in the Ring of Fire, despite Indigenous leaders calling for a moratorium on mining in the area.
We drove about an hour north of Savant to the community of Mishkeegogamang. Jon Thompson, of the Dryden Observer, reported that of the 1,644 people living in Mishkeegogamang First Nation, 8.6 people live in every house, leading to crises of overflowing septic tanks, homes without electricity or sewage, hundreds on constant suicide watch, and traumatizing poverty. Over 1,000 more are in jail and nearly 300 people have lost their lives suddenly since 1981.
Mishkeegogamang is on what is called Treaty 9 territory. Tom Wassaykeesic, a band councillor working hard to seek justice for his people, explained: ”According to the governments…we surrendered the land and all its resources. But our ancestors never agreed to surrender anything. We’ve always believed that the spirit and intent of the Treaty No.9 is to share the land.”
The original site where the treaty was signed is now underwater. In 1934, the Ontario government chose to build a hydro dam to supply the Pickle Crow Gold mine with hydro. Water began to rise in 1935, washing away homes, gardens and gravesites for the man-made Lake St. Joseph. People were not told they would be flooded and awoke to find water rising in their homes.
The dispossession of the people of Mishkeegogamang only continues. Highway 599 runs right through the reserve and is crucial for the vast gold mining industry in the area, which results in billions of dollars coming from Ojibway land and resources. The East-West route for the Ring of Fire development will include Mishkeegogamang, but as Tom highlighted, the continual promise of social development and employment has only resulted in continual disappointment.
Mishkeegogamang has a band council under the Indian Act. Tom emphasized that it therefore faces obstacles arising from the fact that the Indian Act was imposed by the Canadian government without input or proper consultation with Indigenous peoples.
Pickle Lake and Central Patricia Path
Our visit to Pickle Lake, 20 km north of Mishkeegogamang, continued to reveal the displacement and apartheid conditions of the region.
The long history of mining around Pickle Lake has brought Native people to the town from the many fly-in communities such as Round Lake, Bearskin Lake, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug only to face eviction and segregation. Tom Wassakeeysic’s family, like many others, lived in a former mining house on Central Patricia Path until “white guys from the township” told them they had 3 days to move to the Mishkeegogamang reserve so that white mining workers could live there.
We were told many stories of police brutality in the town. George shared an intense story of being harassed, tasered and arrested by the OPP “while just waiting for a cab.” A state-of-the-art OPP detachment centre stands in stark contrast to the run-down buildings of the economically depressed town. There are 13 OPP officers in this town of only 400 people.
On our drive back to Thunder Bay, Gary stated: “There’s a lot of potential now. With this group that came up [ILPS], I think you opened the door for other organizations to come in… to visualize, to support. And you’re coming into a community where that’s what people need right about now.”
These relationships and commitments extend to ILPS membership and beyond, as people committed to struggling against colonialism and imperialism, for true justice for Mother Earth and her peoples. This destructive system makes the links between us every day by raping the land in Northern Ontario to fuel financial centres and capital accumulation in Southern Ontario. Thus we must continue to form relationships in struggle which connect the defense of land in the North with people power in the South.
Concrete Next Steps: Building a Home and Building People Power
We in the ILPS Commission in Support of Indigenous People’s Struggles are in the process of working with our friends in Mishkeegogamang to see how best to support the efforts of the community to seek justice, especially for the youth.
Our immediate next step is to support a group of Saugeen women who are addressing the lack of housing in their community, their forced disconnection from the land, and the lack of institutions under people’s control. This summer, we are organizing for a group of people to join the building of a log cabin for a Saugeen woman who needs a home immediately. She wants to live directly on the land that she is fighting to protect from the incursion of mining and the poisoning of traditional food sources by forestry companies. She is leading the building of homes for many other young families who need housing and is also building a general store by the highway to address the need for resources and employment.
Her strength and vision is clear: “We’re put in these areas to look after earth and her people. That’s why I’m going to do my best to walk with the people.”