Springbank Dam in Ontario has become more than a moment in history. It has become a source of the tiresome debate that the plight of the Quebec and Ontario native band just became a reminder of: it was one of the last site of wide scale colonialism on this continent, when Ottawa gained control of the 3,500 square mile land mass known as Grassy Narrows over the opposition of the Cree and Attawapiskat chief.
And it has become a reminder of what has been lost. It was the stuff of novels. The Patleluys government decided that water was of greater importance than the lives of the indigenous people living within it. They stripped the Cree of their language, and their land, and their identity. Over the century of the colonial rule that followed, the lands that first drew Douglas Fairbanks and William Cane to the area became vacant and barren, and the Cree fell victim to terrible abuses.
So, now what?
With the Ontario government under pressure to resolve the decades long dispute over the fate of the dam, a stand has emerged. First Nations are calling for the wall to be demolished. The province is giving a more passive attitude and the government says the dam will be eliminated.
I want to say this clearly: in a continuing editorial debate about the province of Ontario owning this dam and the rights of the provincial government to own the land of the Aleutian civilization of the twenty-first century, First Nations are right to demand consideration and to demand that they have any and all control over their lands within Canada’s North.
But Springbank Dam is different. It has already existed. For nearly a hundred years. And it is not only a reminder of the abuses that Ottawa inflicted on the Cree, but also of the fact that they had no say. Nor any hope of remedying them.
The province has negotiated a new environmental agreement with the Aleutian native band that gives them a new nine year lease on the river.
At the same time, the decision by the province to proceed with the dam dismantling has been praised as a good move by the Aleutian native band, a very strong sign that the natives will support the move. That likely means, at least in the short term, that the dam will be dismantled.
Without providing any new environmental benefits to the Aleutian native band to offset the removal of the dam, I feel like I’m being told that the only way to protect Grassy Narrows is to throw the concept of environmental responsibility out the window, for the simple reason that the fish and the plant life will go back to the river immediately, and you won’t need the dam if that happens. It’s a position that I have never heard heard in my country: If all the fish and plants go back to the river you can remove the dam.
If you think it’s farcical, consider that the idea of removing the dam itself is being hailed as a glorious affirmation of native sovereignty. Go to any Canadian reservation, no matter where you are, and take a look at the headstones from the days when the Abenaki people faced extermination. Remember that they survived. They came back.
They are for this dam to be destroyed. They are for the Darke’s Point dam in the province to be destroyed. But not Springbank Dam. That’s where all the Cree people gathered to fish. That’s where the fish population thrived. That’s where much of the fish in the Mississippi River lives.
Hamburglar, the Hungarian forest rat and Everyman, the popular H. G. Wells character, threw out this warning to the scientist and the second world war fighter pilot:
To scoff at what we were and to ignore what we are is to set aside our common future.
The mischiefmaking Canadian government should learn this lesson. And so should the Ontario government.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at [email protected]. He lives in Los Angeles.