A long-planned Idle No More protest in Edmonton nearly turned ugly when a truck pushed forward through a line of demonstrators.
The clash took place almost immediately after protesters walked onto the Queen Elizabeth II highway on the south fringe of the city Wednesday afternoon. The highway is a major route that connects Edmonton with Alberta’s other major city, Calgary.
About two dozen protesters walked onto the highway at 1 p.m., as scheduled, but caught the main organizer and police off guard – none were there yet. Those who were blocked all three lanes.
As traffic waited, one car drove around protesters on the median before the blue Ford truck simply began inching forward toward the crowd, which huddled in front of it. “You’re going to kill somebody,” a protester shouted as the truck moved steadily forward.
Another truck, driven by an Idle No More supporter, pulled around in the Ford’s path to stop it. The protesters then gave in, the truck fled and the organizer, Papaschase First Nation Chief Calvin Bruneau, arrived soon after.
Mr. Bruneau had supporters keep one lane open. The first nation says the highway, and much of south Edmonton, is on land once designated as its reserve, and later taken illegally.
The Edmonton blockade was one of several during what was dubbed a “day of action” across Canada. Blockades in other provinces closed rail lines and an access road to a major bridge between Canada and the United States.
Edmonton’s demonstration was held in solidarity with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement, Mr. Bruneau said. He called it a success as traffic trickled through. “They know the message, they got the message,” he said.
Many of the delayed drivers were nonetheless supportive, smiling and cheering as they passed the protesters. Others yelled profanities. Most simply drove on, with windows closed.
In explaining why officers weren’t present at the protest site, Edmonton Police Deputy Chief Brian Simpson suggested they were caught off guard. “We were anticipating that certain things were going to happen, and they went ahead of schedule, so that’s the way it balanced out. “ The protest began precisely at 1 p.m., as had been advertised and scheduled, but Mr. Bruneau had been in negotiations with police throughout the noon-hour.
No arrests were made at the protest. The deputy police chief declined to say whether the truck driver could face charges for pushing through the crowd. “The key here is [we] don’t want to see anybody injured, [and we] want to balance those rights” for protesters and drivers, he said.
At its peak, Edmonton’s protest included about 50 people, lasting a total of two hours as scheduled. At one point, a counter-protester came, holding up a sign saying “Reserves are Canada’s Spoiled Children.” Identifying himself only as Steve, the man argued with protesters over whose land the highway was, before leaving after about 20 minutes. “I’m tired of their movement,” he said, adding: “I was kinda hoping someone would take a swing at me.”
Several protesters had calmly talked to him.
“I think Steve represents the unenlightened,” one protester, Taz Bouchier, said afterward. An elder within the Treaty 8 area of northern Alberta, Ms. Bouchier said the protest is primarily about a lack of consultation between the federal government and first nations, including those on changes to land and water laws that she believes erode treaty rights. “The people have decided enough is enough,” she said, saying the protests are meant to balance activism with inconveniencing drivers and others.
“It’s going to be a balance of public sympathy and public frustration,” Ms. Bouchier said. “And either one gets people talking.”
Protests were held across Alberta on Wednesday, including in Calgary. In another, Highway 55 near Cold Lake, Alta., was delayed though not closed by protesters. The city is home to a major Imperial Oil facility.
There were no protests in Fort McMurray, the epicentre of the oil sands, as first nations leaders there hope industry will join them in pressuring the government for changes to the contentious laws. If they don’t Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam warns Fort McMurray’s lone artery, Highway 63, could be shut in the summer for days, or more, at a time.