Railways in the country’s most populous areas approached gridlock Tuesday as Indigenous people and their supporters protested against a B.C. pipeline development and government leaders squabbled over who should intervene.
Canadian National Railway Co. announced it “will be forced to shut down significant parts" of its network if protests don’t end soon along Southern Ontario rail lines, which control trains headed east and west. After six days of protest, hundreds of trains hauling everything from fresh produce to chlorine for municipal water purification were parked on the tracks, which are filling rapidly.
Protests escalated and spread across the country after police confronted protesters from the Wet’suwet’en Nation who had blocked construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in British Columbia. RCMP arrested seven people on Monday along a key logging road in a bid to restore access to construction sites for Coastal GasLink. Along that road, police have arrested a total of 28 people at protests sympathetic to the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ cause since Thursday.
Port operations in Halifax, Montreal and Prince Rupert were slowed, while rail service disruption in B.C. caused trains to be backed up to Saskatchewan, according to CN. Passenger train service Via Rail, which runs mainly on CN tracks, cancelled 34 trains in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor on Tuesday because of the protests. Some 24,500 travellers have had to make other plans since Thursday. Via said late Tuesday it’s cancelling all service on the Montreal-Toronto and Toronto-Ottawa routes in both directions through Thursday because of the blockade.
“It’s not just passenger trains that are impacted by these blockades, it’s all Canadian supply chains,” said JJ Ruest, chief executive officer of Montreal-based CN. “We are currently parking trains across our network, but due to limited available space for such, CN will have no choice but to temporarily discontinue service in key corridors unless the blockades come to an end.”
As the protests along CN’s main line near Belleville, Ont., entered their sixth day, Andrew Brant, who is from the nearby Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, said the demonstration along the train tracks began organically, as a gesture of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous communities.
“It just happened,”’ he said. “A couple people went out there because we’re sick of how we’re treated as Indigenous people in Canada.”
The protesters, who are by their own admission acting without the support of their chief and band council, say they will not move until the RCMP stop enforcing a court injunction against anti-pipeline protesters in northwestern B.C.
“Pull out and leave them alone” Mr. Brant said. “As soon as that happens, we can leave. We can all go back to our daily routines.”
Despite being thousands of kilometres apart, the communities of Wet’suwet’en and Tyendinaga forged a bond during the 1990 Oka crisis, a long standoff between Mohawk communities in Quebec and the Canadian Armed Forces over the expansion of a local golf course. “They were there for us in 1990,” Mr. Brant said.
Last Friday, CN obtained an injunction against the protesters from Tyendinaga, as their encampment continued to snarl passenger and freight traffic between Toronto and Montreal. Protesters have vowed to defy the injunction.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he is concerned about the blockades, but it is up to provincial governments to enforce the law along railways.
“The impact is enormous,” Mr. Garneau said. “The railways have obtained injunctions. … It is the responsibility of the province to make sure an injunction is respected, not the federal government.”
The Ontario Provincial Police are continuing to speak with protesters and seek a “peaceful resolution,” said spokesman Bill Dickson, including by delivering gifts of tobacco and maple syrup. The OPP is acting in accordance with the force’s framework for police preparedness for Indigenous critical incidents, Mr. Dickson said. The policy was adopted in the wake of the Ipperwash Crisis, a 1995 standoff over disputed land in Southwestern Ontario between local First Nations and provincial police.
“It’s been a peaceful demonstration," Mr. Dickson said. "We’ve had nothing but good co-operation, good communication with the individuals participating.”
Quebec Premier François Legault, whose province is cut off by the Ontario protest and is also dealing with a commuter rail line blockade south of Montreal, said Ottawa and the local Mohawk Peacekeeper police force must act. “I think there’s a big part of this that is the federal government’s responsibility,” he said. “We’ve got passenger train problems and once again looming propane shortages for farmers. It has to stop. It can’t go on like this for long.”
Protesters used mounds of snow and wooden pallets to block the Candiac commuter rail line in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory near Montreal, disrupting the daily travel of 3,000 people.
Some protesters were apologetic for the disruption they were causing, but pointed to the hundreds of years of inconvenience sthey had suffered since European settlement. "I feel like the message is getting across,” said Dayna Danger, a Métis-Saulteaux originally from Winnipeg who lives in Montreal and joined the Kahnawake protest in solidarity. “The RCMP [are] breaking our laws with their action [in British Columbia], so we’re coming together to pressure the RCMP to get out of that territory.”
In Eastern Quebec, members of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq nation blocked a small regional railway line used mostly to haul lumber.
Meanwhile, anti-pipeline protesters surrounded the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday, preventing some elected officials and journalists from entering the buildings and delaying the start of the 2020 legislative session.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a fervent defender of the oil and gas industry, called the protesters hypocrites who are not helping to further Indigenous rights or fight climate change. He said that all elected First Nation councils along the pipeline route support the Coastal GasLink project, and he argued that ensuring countries such as China replace coal power with liquefied natural gas would have an enormous impact on reducing global emissions.
With reports from James Keller in Calgary, Justine Hunter in Victoria, and The Canadian Press.
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