One of my favourite ways to recharge from the rather sedentary daily routine required of graduate studies in history is to spend time outside. This summer, I enjoyed an eight-day backcountry canoe trip in the Temagami wilderness region with a group of friends. Rarely far from some interesting piece of history, this year’s route happened to take us past several sites of the 1988-1989 Red Squirrel Road Blockades.
Temagami is located approximately 400km north of Toronto, and contains a substantial area of rare old-growth pine forests. Several of these towering pines reach as high as 15 stories, and are up to 300 years old. Home to the Teme-Augama Anishnabai and Temagami First Nation, the Temagami region contains a significant system of sacred sites, traditional trails, and canoe routes.
The Red Squirrel Blockades were a series of interconnected protests related to the logging of the old growth forests, and disputed land claims by the Teme-Augama Anishnabai and Temagami First Nation. The first blockades were initiated by the Teme-Augama Anishnabai in the summer of 1988, and were followed by legal disputes regarding the environmental assessments of the area, a benefit concert featuring Gordon Lightfoot, Farley Mowat, and others, a call for an old-growth logging moratorium by four scientists, and further blockades.
Our trip this summer passed over the site of the Wakimika Lake blockade of Red Squirrel Road. In September 1989, environmental and First Nations activists peacefully resisted the expanded construction of the road. Several individuals spent over 36 hours attached to a bulldozer by a Kryptonite bike locks. These “lock-ons” became a popular form of protest, as they succeeded in delaying construction for significant periods of time. The added prominence of the Wakimika Lake blockade followed the participation and arrest, on September 19, 1989, of Ontario’s Opposition Leader and future Premier, Bob Rae. Over 300 people would be arrested as part of the Red Squirrel Blockades. While the protests did prompt increased government protection, the old-growth forests and Aboriginal sacred sites in the Temagami Region still lack full environmental protection.
To find out more about what for a period of time was the largest act of peaceful civil disobedience in Canadian history, visit these links:
South of Wakimika Lake, on Obabika Lake, we paddled by the Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks (picture to the left), a sacred Aboriginal spiritual site. Alex Mathias, a Temagami First Nation elder, lives in ancestral unceded territory on Obabika Lake. A participant in the 1989 blockades, Alex provides day- long tours of pictographs, sacred sites, and old-growth forests around the Lake.
Note: An earlier version of this post first appeared in The Triumvirate (Fall 2015), the news magazine of the Tri-University Graduate Program in History.