Radio — Direct action against development in Winnipeg

On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh interviews Jasmine Thomas. She was a core participant in the Rooster Town Blockade at the Parker Wetlands in Winnipeg this past summer, which for two months successfully defended an ecologically sensitive site in the south end of the city from development. Though the occupation ended in September, the group continues to pursue both legal and political means to stop the development, while also fundraising to cover the costs of defending themselves against a lawsuit for more than half a million dollars in damages launched by the developer.

The chain of events leading to the land occupation are mostly pretty clear. But there are a couple of crucial links that the occupiers themselves still don’t understand, despite all of their effort and all of their research. Namely, they don’t undestand how the Parker Wetlands went from being designated as ecologically sensitive by the City of Winnipeg around 2002, to being rezoned for industrial use in 2009 and traded in a land swap to a developer with a less-than-stellar reputation. They have their suspicions – the city’s prior administration is widely known to have engaged in what Jasmine describes as “shady dealings” – but the details are far from clear.

Everything else, though, they’re pretty certain of.

They have no doubt whatsoever, for instance, that the efforts to pave over the Parker Wetlands are of a piece with Winnipeg’s long history of municipal colonialism. The site is right next to the locations of two historic Metis settlements, Rooster Town and Tin Town, hence the name “Rooster Town Blockade.” Rooster Town was cleared of its Metis residents starting in the late 1950s to make way for commercial development. The wetland was integral to the life of those communities, being regularly used for trapping and recreation, and there is some oral history evidence of historic burials there.

The Parker Wetlands also contained one of the few remnants in the area of aspen forest and prairie still in much the same state as it would have been prior to colonization. Community groups and environmentalists have been fighting to maintain the site as a sort of eco-park since the 2009 land swap.

In July of 2017, however, though the developer had obtained no permits to do so, clearcutting began. A live video on Facebook showed machinery levelling the forest in real time, and both online and offline networks of nearby residents, environmentalists, and other activsts in the city started to hum with outrage. Before long, people began to gather at the site. Jenna Vandal, a Metis and Anishinaabe woman, sent a callout for support, and soon enough the people who had gathered decided that to prevent further damage to the site, they would set up a blockade and stay as long as they could manage.

And what they managed was impressive: For two months, in the face of hostility from the developer and growing measures to get them off the land, a diverse group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people maintained a consistent presence and preserved what remained of the ecosystem. The group organized themselves, they took care of the logistics, they made decisions horizontally and democratically as best they culd. And they built support politically, too – though perhaps not as much as they would have liked, given that the time and energy required to maintain an occupation in a physically isolated part of the city meant they could not do as much outreach, public education, and relationship building as they wanted. Still, they got plentiful if not particularly supportive local media coverage, and they found that any time they had a chance to engage with other Winnipeggers about the issue, they got support.

When the developer finally succeeded in obtaining an injunction in September, the occupiers were saddened but not surprised — the developer had been pursuing legal mechanisms all along and, as Jasmine points out, the courts are at heart a colonial institution. The occupiers elected to abide by the court’s decision and left the site, and very quickly the development activities on the site resumed.

The group anticipated that their activites from that point would follow two strands: pursuing the kinds of political work in the community that the logistics of the occupation had made so practically difficult, and also seeking a judicial review of the land swap, which they suspect may have been conducted improperly. They have indeed been doing both of these things, but the developer threw a surprise their way: Even after they left the site, he named 49 of them in a lawsuit. Now, they have no choice but to engage in extensive fundraising for legal costs to fight the suit, which could conceivably drag on for years.

Nonetheless, despite this barrier and despite the damage already done to the land, they remain hopeful that a combined political and legal strategy may eventually succeed in returning the land to the City of Winnipeg, which they then hope will consult with Metis and other Indigenous people in the city in determining the site’s ultimate fate.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of the Rooster Town Blockade at the Parker Wetlands.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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