A protester carries a sign at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.
Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press
The federal government is ramping up its efforts to convince Indigenous communities to peacefully end a series of rail blockades, as Canadian National Railway Co. announced 1,000 temporary layoffs on Sunday, reflecting the growing economic impact of the protests.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday cancelled a trip to the Caribbean to focus on the blockades and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said that Ottawa doesn’t believe police intervention is the solution to anti-pipeline protests that have shut down much of the country’s rail system. Some premiers and the federal Conservative opposition had called on the government in recent days to take a hard line, enforce injunctions and remove protesters.
Businesses have warned of economic damage as trains typically carrying tens of thousands of commuters and billions of dollars worth of freight have been idled in railyards and sidings across the country since the blockades began on Feb. 6. CN sent out 450 of an estimated 1,000 temporary layoff notices on Sunday, spokesman Alexandre Boulé confirmed, as protests have shuttered much of the railway’s eastern Canadian network.
Story continues below advertisement
Late Sunday, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau relaxed a ministerial order that had limited the speed of trains transporting combustible cargo such as crude oil. The order followed a fiery derailment in Saskatchewan in early February. CN said the change would allow it to increase the speed of its shipments in Western Canada, which would help compensate for the blockades in the east.
The protests have been spearheaded by groups opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia and the RCMP’s enforcement of injunctions to dislodge protesters who had been blocking construction of the $6.6-billion pipeline. All 20 elected First Nation councils along the natural gas pipeline’s route support the project, but a group of eight Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs have led a vocal campaign to oppose the pipeline’s construction.
Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is expected to meet with Indigenous leaders in British Columbia on Monday. The Gitxsan First Nation temporarily took down a rail blockade near Hazelton, B.C., last week pending a proposed meeting with the minister, provincial officials and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Chantal Gagnon, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister, said Mr. Trudeau has been in communication on the weekend with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Mr. Garneau and Ms. Bennett.
“Our priority remains the safety and security of all Canadians and the swift resolution of this issue to restore service across the rail system in accordance with the law,” she said in a statement.
Mr. Miller, the Indigenous Services Minister, said the federal government has learned from two bloody police raids on First Nations encampments in recent decades, in Oka, Que., in 1990 and in Ipperwash, Ont., in 1995. More dialogue with Indigenous leaders and communities is the only solution to the continuing blockades, he said on Sunday.
“We have the experience of Oka 30 years ago where people went in with police and someone died. My question to Canadians, my questions to myself and to fellow politicians regardless of the party, is whether we do things the same old way and repeat the errors of the past, or do we take the time to do it right?” he said in an interview.
Story continues below advertisement
A blockade in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., has stopped most traffic on CN’s rail network east of Winnipeg.
Via Rail said on Sunday that it has cancelled all trains across Canada, except for two secondary routes, until the end of Monday. More than 83,000 passengers have had their trips cancelled since the Ontario blockade started.
One of Montreal’s commuter lines has been shut down by a blockade in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory outside the city. The provincial authority that operates the line said it is planning to run buses for commuters on Monday.
Smaller protests were also held on the weekend in Vancouver, Vaughan, Ont., and Niagara Falls, Ont.
Protesters at the Tyendinaga blockade declined to speak to media, including regarding Mr. Trudeau’s plans – except to say they believed it was unlikely that he would show up and speak to them in person.
Four Ontario Provincial Police officers hung back several hundred metres from the blockade Sunday, coming closer only for a brief check-in with the protesters in the late afternoon. “The dialogue is still open,” said Sergeant Cynthia Savard, the OPP’s regional community safety officer, in a phone interview. “It’s about keeping a peaceful, safe environment.”
Several dozen supporters arrived over the course of the day, delivering supplies including pizza, propane, firewood and Tim Hortons coffee. Some came from hundreds of kilometres away to share their support for the blockaders and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, and share their fears over the natural gas pipeline in B.C.
“It’s our future that’s going to be destroyed – it’s really important for youth,” said Malika Gasbaoui, 17, who is Ojibwa-Métis and visited from the Laurentians in Quebec. Her mother, Anna, added that “a lot of people have been saying that the majority of native people, and non-native people in Canada, are for pipelines – which is not true. … The more these guys destroy, the less we’re going to have.”
Mike Salmon came with his family from Kitchener, Ont. to bring the protesters tarps, toilet paper and batteries. “I think it’s such a sign of the times that Canada’s been going through this wake-up call about reconciliation, and the whole planet is going through a wake-up call around climate change,” he said.
Kenneth Deer, the secretary of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, said his community’s blockade has been supported by the local band council and he expects it will remain in place until the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs tell them to stand down. Kahnawake was one of the communities at the centre of the Oka crisis.
“They blocked highways and railroads during the Oka crisis. They helped us. Now the shoe is on the other foot and we’re going to help them,” said Mr. Deer. “This has to be dealt with over there, with the Wet’suwet’en. All of this is for them. This is not for Tyendinaga and not for Kahnawake.”
Last week, federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on police to enforce court orders and end the blockades, and criticized protesters as misguided activists who are damaging the economy and ignoring the wishes of elected First Nations leaders.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Sunday evening that he had urged Mr. Trudeau to focus on ending the blockades, calling it a “serious issue of national significance.”