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Indigenous allies in Ontario defend Lubicon Cree land against logging, Canada, 1991-98
The right to Aboriginal reserve land has been a contested issue throughout Canadian history, but perhaps one of the most disturbing violations of Aboriginal land rights is illustrated through the Lubicon Cree, a First Nations band in northern Alberta.
As the British came to Canada, they realized that to attract new settlers Canadian soil would have to appear uninhabited, so treaties were formed with Aboriginal nations, extinguishing many of their rights in return for reserve land. Most prevalent were the number treaties. From 1871 until 1921 eleven numbered treaties were negotiated with Aboriginal nations across Canada. However, due to their extreme remoteness, the Lubicon Cree community was left out of the process. At no point throughout Canadian history did the Lubicon cede their land to the settlers, and they were subsequently passed over a number of times.
In the 1970s, when the Alberta government realized that there was money to be made on Lubicon territory, the government began developing the land without any consent from the community. The first step was to build a road into the territory, after which oil and logging companies followed.
The Alberta government maintained that, as other Cree communities south of the area signed treaties, the Lubicon Cree must fall into the same category. Since the 1970s the Lubicon struggled to gain formally acknowledged land rights, but they were dismissed by the many institutions which claimed to protect such rights. They were labeled as squatters on Alberta’s land, and were ignored by the federal government, which refuses to become involved in the case. This left it up to Alberta law to make life-altering decisions for the community.
Because Canadian courts, both provincial and Supreme, failed to recognize the legitimacy of the Lubicon’s battle, the land has been continuously stripped of resources while the community sees no benefit, economic or otherwise, from billion-dollar development projects.
In 1989, after years of oil drilling, the Alberta government gave Daishowa (a major logging company) timber rights in the area. If clear-cut logging were to forge ahead, the equivalent of 70 football fields would be cut each day. Two additional companies – Brewster Construction (a subsidiary of Daishowa) and Buchanan Timber – were also given logging rights. Both would be required to turn over the hard wood from their operations to Daishowa.
Despite warnings and opposition from the Lubicon community (all of which were ignored) Daishowa began logging in the fall of 1990. However, not long after the launch of the project the Buchanan logging camp was set on fire. The amount of $25,000 in damage caused the companies to cease operations for the rest of the season. Because the Lubicon community was so charged from the event, they asked outside supporters to do what they could to help stop Daishowa from logging on their traditional land. One such support group was the Friends of the Lubicon based out of Toronto, Ontario, which included Ed Bianchi, Kevin Thomas, and Elaine Bishop, all of whom played a major role in protesting Daishowa’s logging.
The logging companies had planned to return and continue their operations in the fall of 1991, but were faced with quite a shock – a national (soon to be international) boycott of all Daishowa products. During 1991 the boycott grew in such numbers and was so successful that Daishowa agreed to halt logging for the remainder of that year, but the struggle continued.
Because Daishowa did not openly market their products to the public, the Friends of the Lubicon decided to target corporations that got their paper supplies from Daishowa. From 1991 – 1994 the group picketed, protested, had phone- and fax-ins, and held mail campaigns in order to gain attention and support from large companies using Daishowa products. Because they were operating on such a large scale, the group chose their battles in stride, giving themselves small, but achievable goals that had the potential for short-term victory, and would hurt Daishowa.
The Friends of the Lubicon gained the support of a number of well-known companies including Club Monaco, Woolworth, KFC, A&W, LCBO, Pizza Pizza, and Country Style Donuts. By 1994 the Friends of the Lubicon won the support of over 47 companies internationally representing over 4300 retailers. However, they did not only target larger companies. Throughout the whole campaign the Friends of the Lubicon encouraged their supporters to write letters to their government, and welcomed donations for legal costs. Information about the campaign was easily accessible, and played a large part in getting local and national support from concerned citizens.
Throughout this time Daishowa stayed off the Lubicon land, but refused to sign or publically announce the removal of their contract with the Alberta government to log on Lubicon land. Frustrated with the loss of profits, of which they reported over $20 million dollars, Daishowa responded to the boycott with legal action. In 1995 Daishowa launched a lawsuit against the Friends of the Lubicon in Ontario, shutting down the boycott for three years through an interim injunction. The Ontario court ruled that the Daishowa boycott was causing economic harm and that it was illegal for Lubicon supporters to ask the public to boycott the company.
Without being able to continue a public boycott, the Friends of the Lubicon had no access to national and international companies. Although their local base of supporters was still large, the injunction severely limited their options.
The boycott ban lasted until 1998 when Daishowa tried to make the injunction permanent. However, in that year Justice Francis Kitely reversed the injunction and ruled that there is a right to boycott, stating that Lubicon situation was a tragic one.
The Friends of the Lubicon were ready for this day and the international boycott was re-launched, gaining even more supporters than before. By the end of the campaign they had managed to gain the support of fifty companies worldwide and thousands of Canadian sympathizers.
Daishowa not only continued to lose money, but the expensive lawsuit and the abandonment of their many customers drew so much media attention that Daishowa was backed into a corner. The Friends of the Lubicon branded Daishowa an evil corporation unwilling to let the Lubicon have what was rightfully theirs.
Only months after the court decision Daishowa agreed to terms, signing a written document pledging not to log on Lubicon land until land claims are settled, a process that would likely remain unresolved for a number of years.
The boycott’s success was a rare victory for the Lubicon Cree. Despite the continued fight and protests from both their community and outside allies, the Alberta government continued to reap the benefits of Lubicon land without regard for their people. However, the Daishowa boycott demonstrates how powerful outside allies can be. Although the Lubicon continue to struggle and fight for their land rights, those outside the community have taken it upon themselves to do the same. As the Lubicon run low on resources and energy the continued support of their allies has contributed a great deal to their struggle.