At the invitation of First Nation environmental justice activists, GCM traveled two hours north of Toronto into the Wahta Mohawk territory, a land rich in tradition, forests and lakes. This first of a series of four First Nation community and environmental collaborations is part of a new effort by Environmental Defence (with an “c”) of Canada, not to be confused with Environmental Defense (with an “s”) in the USA. The two organizations could not be more different.
I am met at the airport by Sarah Winterton of Environmental Defence-Canada (ED-Canada), a long time social and environmental justice activist in Canada. We drive north from Pearson International airport and see the sprawl that is growing out of control around the city. Sarah explains ED Canada’s efforts to stem the tide of subdivisions of mini-mansions and the like in the region. Their campaign was focused on establishing the southern Ontario Greenbelt. Within this successful campaign they have been strongly promoting community models that increase residential density around commercial areas and support public transit. Now that the Greenbelt is established ED is working on implementation - making sure that the boundaries are not compromised. They are also trying to get more area designated under the Greenbelt Act.
Soon we enter the richest farming area of Ontario, only to see a new 8 lane freeway cutting through it, no doubt to hasten further sprawl to overtake the existing economy. Canada is still relatively unpopulated compared to its land mass, in a way similar to Australia. Hunger for development dollars and aspirations of a US style economy are driving the growth of unsustainable projects.
The greatest effects of this development are felt upon the First Nation’s people and lands in Canada. The culture of consumption and easy lifestyles are taking a toll on the culture, traditions and the very future of these nations. Fortunately, major nationals groups like ED-C and Eco-Justice has joined forces with First Nation environmental activists to draw attention to this serious problem. ED-C has hired a fulltime First Nation leader, Ronald Plain of the Aaijwianaang to head up their Turtle Island project, which is empowering and connecting First Nations all over Canada to fight back and win.
Plain has teamed up with other First Nation networks, like ICE - Indigenous Cooperative on the Environment to host the development of Workshops on the development of community led strategies for environmental protection. Workshops dealt with water, air, food, and human health impacts of contamination, exposure and dumping on First Nations land.
Each day at the workshops is opened with a “thanksgiving” blessing, a Mohawk tradition meant to ensure the recognition that everyday we must give thanks for the Creator and creation. The blessing recognizes the responsibilities of each and every part of creation that must be carried out in cooperation with everyone, especially human beings, in order for the Mother Earth to survive.
We gather to make this thanksgiving blessing today.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about our Elder Brother the sun, who once again has carried out his responsibility and risen today and given us light to see our way to this meeting. He has risen today as he has every day, day after day, month after month, millennium after millennium and carried out his duties. If we could carry out our duties like our brother the sun, we would have done well. And can we agree, that this is important to us all.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about the Grandmother moon who will rise later to light our way at night. She is the force behind the 28 day cycle from which all things female originate and without which there would be no children to carry on for us when we are gone. She has the power to turn the tides of all oceans. And can we agree that this is important to us all.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about the aunties and uncles who are all the stars in the sky who guide us in our journeys across this earth. The stars, to who our ancestors spoke to aloud, but we have long since forgotten how to do this. And can we agree, that this important to us all.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about the three sisters that sustain us: the corm, the beans and the squash. And can we agree, that the corn, the beans and squash are important to us all.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about four winds, our Grandfathers who blow us the snow in the winter. This reminds us that we must carry out our responsibilities and cooperate with one another so that we will survive the cold. And can we agree, that the four winds are important to us all.
I ask you to bring together minds and good thoughts and think about the Mother Earth who turns in the heavens everyday and offers her bounty for our care and responsibility so that all the beings and animals and plants may carry out their duties and thrive. And can we all agree that the Mother Earth is important to us.
I ask you to bring together your minds and your very best thoughts and think about all of the things in creation and our responsibilities to them as we gather today. And can we all agree that all of these things are important to us.
This blessing was typical of several deliver by Henry Lickers, a great Haudenosaunee leader, of First Nation Environmental efforts in not only Ontario, but throughout North, Central and South America. Lickers has developed a model First Nation’s Environmental Department for the Akwesasne Nation. His thirty years experience in environmental assessments, monitoring, legal and technical issues associated with the complicated inter relation of Canadian law and First Nation treaties is much sought after by others. Henry passed along much wisdom to the gathering with humor and humility over the three days.
Sessions were held on: The Environmental Bill of Rights, First Nation Consultation, Impact Benefits Agreements, First Nation Obligations Under Federal Programs, Federal Responsibilities, Provincial Responsibilities as well as a variety of community toolkits and strategies. The Wahta Elders shared many of their concerns with us about their community and the environment. Evenings were filled with group dinners, socials and discussions on the experiences of those gathered.
The final day we awoke to find the winter’s first snow blanketing the area. After the last dinner that evening, some of the attendees chose to spend the night rather than drive the roads, waiting for the snow to break. Ron Plain and I headed down to Toronto to an airport hotel so I could catch my flight to Ohio the next morning. Ron drove back to Sarnia’s chemical valley to see his family once the ice cleared. Travel has its rewards, but takes it toll on family and home. This trip to the Wahta Mohawk Territory was filled with many lessons, blessings and spiritual renewal.