By Jon Thompson
They’re not just building a cabin at the end of a logging road on the Sioux Lookout highway. They’re building solidarity.
Touched by the plight of Savant Lake residents who were excluded from Saugeen First Nation when the reserve was constructed in the early 1980s, a coalition of Toronto-based indigenous solidarity activists is spending two weeks constructing a trap line outpost in the remote wilderness.
Darlene Necan was bathing her newborn son on the table of the two-room shack she shared with 10 people in 1979 when a group of men burst through the door announcing her community would finally be getting its own reserve. She signed their list, anticipating when the call came to move north across the tracks, she would have a home of her own.
The call never came.
After 20 years of living among those left behind in Savant Lake, an ominous feeling that things were about to change caused Necan to give up drugs and alcohol. Her son committed suicide the next year and her politicization began.
“That’s when I found out, something is not right. Why are we still poor? Why are we still suffering,” Necan asked. “I go down Highway 17 both ways and I see nice houses for other reserves and businesses going up. That’s when I started noticing this is not right, what we’re going through.”
Necan organized others who still hadn’t been accommodated in Saugeen, read as much as she could find on her rights and began an outreach campaign to anyone who would listen. The band leadership did not accommodate and form letter responses from all levels and branches of government informed her the case was an internal matter of the First Nation and out of their jurisdictions.
Time was wearing on in Savant Lake and Necan’s patience was wearing thin. Over two winters in the late 2000s, she watched elder, Amelia Skunk’s feet burned with frostbite as the 75-year-old woman survived the winters living in an old chicken shack.
“When we heard she had frostbite on her toes was the first time we got really pissed off,” Necan recalled. “That’s when we said, ‘we’re going to take body action now. Never mind this paper writing. Paper writing don’t go nowhere.’ That’s when we stood up and made plans on our own to correct this problem without the chief.”
Necan began stripping the chief’s abandoned home in Savant Lake for wood to build Skunk a new home and when that proved unfruitful, she burned it down.
She served 10 days in the Kenora Jail.
Upon release, Necan began seeking construction expertise and finances. No help was available within reach so she reached further and on the verge of feeling “dead to the world,” she reached Toronto.
A network of indigenous solidarity activists in Canada’s biggest city assembled a diverse team make the trek northward.
They were able to raise $5,948 over an indiegogo online campaign. Added to the $1,000 in donations Necan assembled, the effort not only finished construction on a home for Skunk, but is also building Necan a base on the land where she’ll have her own home, at last.
“Right now, I have a bunch of nice people who are helping me. I’m very grateful. I’m very happy. At least they heard me out and they’re here,” Necan said. “(They’re listening) to the people who are really struggling – the ones who want to change. Listen with their hearts. Hopefully, all races work together and stop hating each other… Even with my chief, I don’t hate them. I kind of feel sorry for them but I know they don’t like me and I know it all has to do with money as a division. It shouldn’t be like that. There has to be something changed.”
Brigitte (surname withheld) was born in the Cordilliera Mountains of the Philippines, a northern region unconquered by the Spanish for over 300 years that lost its independence under American occupation. Brigitte was displaced under a project of the Canadian mining company Ivanhoe and she immigrated to Canada under the Live-In Care Program. Upon seeing indigenous people in Toronto, she came to see what she regarded as political and even physical similarities to herself. It called her back to the struggle.
“Our story with Darlene is not separate,” she explained. “This colonization has brought havoc, destruction and displacement of our ancestral lands from the indigenous people all around the world. Our particular situation in the Philippines, which is not exactly the same as Darlene but the oppression is identical.”
Lucho Granados Ceja’s family came to Canada from Mexico as landed immigrants in 2001. He said creating the political, social and economic infrastructure for grassroots movements to thrive requires direct solidarity instead of relying on government, corporations and charities.
“I really do think, it’s going to be a moment we look back on that really showed what’s possible when people are able to co-operate and when there’s something we can define as people-to-people solidarity,” he said. “Coming from Toronto and the activist scene there, I think a lot of times, things get limited to a discursive level. In other words, it’s mostly talk. It’s an exchange of ideas, very good ideas, but it gets stuck there. I think if we’re serious about decolonization – if we’re serious about addressing the fact that this is a land that was illegally possessed by invading peoples from another continent, and all that implies – it’s making sure that our work changes and making sure our work ends up being direct.”