Protests prompted by first-nations frustration with the federal government flared in at least six provinces Wednesday.
The “day of action” began quietly, but by lunchtime police in Windsor blocked one of two access roads to the Ambassador Bridge, which is the major trade crossing from southern Ontario to the United States, as protesters massed. A spokesman said the closing should not last long as natives were soon moving to a nearby parking lot.
A CN rail spokesman confirmed reports that protesters had blocked the main line in Manitoba, near Portage la Prairie. “We have stopped train traffic in the immediate area, and have obtained a court injunction,” Jim Feeny said.
A small group of people identified as members of the American Indian Movement were photographed blocking the CN rail line in Manitoba. Some members of the AIM, a militant group involved in the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, do not recognize the U.S.-Canada border.
Also Wednesday, VIA passenger trains in both directions were stopped by a blockade in the Marysville area, between Belleville and Kingston, where Tyendinaga Mohawks had pledged to block the line. Passengers whose itineraries require them to pass through the site of the blockade will be accommodated with ground transportation, VIA said in a statement.
The demonstrations were only a few of many planned for across the country. According to witnesses and news reports, protests were being held and roads blocked Wednesday in locations from coast to coast.
Earlier Wednesday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty voiced concern that aboriginal protests could hurt the Canadian economy. Noting that real GDP in Canada is only expected to grow around two per cent this year, efforts should be made to avoid disruptions.
"This is not a time to have even more challenges to the Canadian economy," he said, while taking questions from reporters at an event in Ottawa. "Having said that, we're doing relatively well in the world, but additional challenges are not desirable. In terms of your question about the rule of law, local police forces are responsible for local law enforcement in Canada."
Disruptions were being felt in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick. Among the roads being targeted are the border-crossing bridge in Sault Ste. Marie, the Pat Bay Highway in Victoria and the Westmoreland Bridge in Fredericton.
The Trans-Canada Highway was closed for about an hour at Nipigon, Ont. when 400 protesters marched on it.
There were a handful of protests in Alberta on Wednesday, with the largest in Edmonton. Protesters there briefly closed a major highway into the city, before opening one lane. They left at 3 p.m., reopening the highway after about two hours.
Another blockade took place along Highway 55 near Cold Lake, a small city in eastern Alberta that's near the southern edge of the oil sands, and is home to a major Imperial Oil facility. RCMP said traffic was slowed, but not blocked.
No protests, however, took place in Fort McMurray, the heart of oil sands development. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said they're holding off on further blockades while first nations leaders in the region ask industry to join them in pressing for the repeal of the contentious bills.
In Quebec, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, north of Ottawa, promised to close Highway 117 “to draw attention to forestry operations that they oppose on their lands.”
About 150 people rallied today outside the residence of New Brunswick Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas.The group banged drums, sang and carried signs as they walked from the St. Mary’s First Nation and marched through Fredericton. St. Mary’s Chief Candace Paul says they presented Nicholas with three letters that express their concerns with the federal government’s recently passed omnibus budget legislation and its effect on the environment.
Norm Hardisty, the Chief of the Moose Cree First Nation, brought his people from the shores of James Bay to Ottawa to demonstrate. On Tuesday they visited with Theresa Spence, the Attawapiskat chief who has been protesting on an island in the Ottawa River. And on Wednesday they held a dance in the middle of a busy downtown intersection, blocking cars and buses.
“They are taking away our treaty rights, our schooling all of the things that they signed for,” Rosalie Chum, 35, said when asked what she made the 15-hour trek. “We share our land with everyone and they are taking away our rights.”
Chief Gordon Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians has called for blockades of major transportation corridors throughout Ontario because Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused last week to sit down with all of the chiefs who wanted to talk to him about treaty rights and other concerns.
CN rail spokesman Jim Feeny said mid-morning Wednesday that they had seen no disruptions but were keeping a close eye on the entire network. The railway has previously sought injunctions to end blockades but Mr. Feeny would not say what actions they will take if protesters stop the trains.
About 100 protesters gathered outside the Northern Gateway hearings in Vancouver as part of the protests.
Organizer Frank Brown, a member of the Heiltsuk (helts-uk) First Nation near Bella Bella, says the Idle No More movement in B.C. is aimed largely at oil pipelines.
He says B.C. First Nations don’t want handouts from oil companies and they’ll do whatever it takes to protect the land for future generations.
Meanwhile, about 200 First Nations protesters took part in a 45-minute blockade of the Pat Bay Highway north of Victoria.
Members of the Tsawout (say-out) band chanted slogans like “honour the Douglas Treaty” and “All Canadians should be concerned.”
A group calling itself the “Gitxsan Warriors” is also blocking the CN Rail line through Kitwanga, in northwest B-C today.
Mr. Peters has been cryptic about exactly where blockades might occur – taking a "just watch us” approach.
He says he expects supporters of the grassroots protest group Idle No More to be the foot soldiers of the disruptions. At least one Idle No More organizer has said she opposes blockades and the group has occasionally been critical of first nations leadership. But it is a loosely constructed movement fuelled by the energy of native youth who may well heed Mr. Peters’ call to action.
On the other hand, even Mr. Peters says he recognizes that protests such as those Wednesday risk alienating the broader population of Canada who the first nations are counting upon for support as they press for a greater share of resource revenues and increased dialogue with the government. He and other first nations leaders have said they want all demonstrations to be respectful and non-violent.
In a video statement posted online Tuesday, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Chris Lewis urged restraint by those officers handling protests.
“Whether we like it or not, the first nations people of Ontario have long-time disputes with government and we cannot solve those issues as a police service, he said. “As well, first nations have the ability to paralyze this country, by shutting down travel and trade routes. It is a difficult situation no matter how we view or address it. In policing these events we will be criticized, sometimes from all sides. Our response at all times needs to be measured, professional and sensitive. I’d rather be criticized for a decision to not jeopardize, take or lose lives, than for taking unnecessary aggressive action that undoubtedly will.”
He also shot back at critics who have questioned seeming police inaction in the face of militancy, even when the officers had been instructed by court order to end protests, saying that their strategies are “difficult and complex to explain to the general public.”
“The overall objective of the OPP is to work with all parties to ensure public and officer safety and to maintain orderly conduct and peace. This isn’t us not doing our jobs, as some would have it, but in fact, it is our job,” Commissioner Lewis said. “There may be situations requiring our immediate enforcement action, and we will at times do so. But otherwise, we will continue to investigate these incidents and we’ll lay charges after the event where appropriate.”
Regional chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) say they have struck crisis management teams to ensure that conflicts created by demonstrators do not get out of hand.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, the British Columbia Regional Chief of the AFN will hold a conference call with fellow chiefs Wednesday and is expected to tell them that disrupting the provincial economy is unproductive.
But many indigenous people disagree with her.
Arthur Manuel, the former chief of B.C.’s Neskonlith band, said in an open letter to chiefs and councillors on Tuesday that the British Columbia economy has not benefited indigenous peoples as it has the rest of the population.
“I urge the elected chiefs that support the Idle No More (INM) to get on the call and let the Regional Chief know that the Idle No More is a grassroots movement and that the Chiefs will not become a shield for the province,” wrote Mr. Arthur, “especially because the province is unjustly rich and the INM is grassroots moment that is systemically made poor.”
A possible closure of the main highway leading to Fort McMurray, Alta., the hub of the oil sands, seems unlikely to take place – although there were rumblings about that earlier in the week. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said Tuesday there are no imminent plans to blockade Highway 63.
“However, the people are upset with the current state of affairs in this country and things are escalating towards more direct action,” said Mr. Adam in a statement. “As a leader I have been talking to the people, talking with governments and industry to try and diffuse the situation that is coming to the surface. However, neither government nor industry seems willing to move on the issues and the people have said that enough is enough.”
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, is taking time off to recuperate from a severe bout of stomach flu and exhaustion after last week’s intense negotiating session with chiefs and then Mr. Harper.
A number of first nations leaders are upset that Mr. Atleo proceeded with the meeting even though Mr. Harper refused to meet the demand of Theresa Spence, the Chief of Attawapiskat, who wanted Governor-General David Johnston to be in the room.
Those schisms within the AFN could come into play in the future as the government tries to negotiate a way out of the unrest that is being demonstrated across the country by supporters of Idle No More.
But the executive of the AFN says the work of preparing for future talks with the government is carrying on in Mr. Atleo’s absence and they are holding meetings to plot strategies going forward.
With reports from Bill Curry and from Canadian Press