Protesters targeted multiple spots on Toronto’s commuter rail network Tuesday evening, bringing into the country’s biggest city the sort of anti-pipeline disruptions that have been happening nationally for weeks. And some of those responsible for one of the blockades, in Hamilton, say they will be back.
The regional transit agency Metrolinx said that disruptions took place on or near three separate rail lines in Toronto. One incident ended relatively quickly and trains were put on a detour to bypass another. A third was being watched by staff to see whether it would be necessary to adjust service.
Although short-lived, the blockades highlighted the vulnerability of mass transit to protest. At the busiest time for commuters, trains were cancelled or turned back, buses were put on to try to bridge gaps in service and extended delays affected tens of thousands of people.
The disruptions had a major spillover effect at Union Station, in downtown Toronto, the country’s busiest transit hub and a terminus for all GO train routes. Through the early part of rush hour, hordes of commuters were waiting to see how or if they could get home and Metrolinx temporarily encouraged people to stop arriving.
The protests were restricted to the GO Transit commuter rail system, which carries over 200,000 people daily. A spokesman for the local Toronto Transit Commission, which serves about eight times as many people, said shortly after 5 p.m. that there were no incidents affecting their service.
The Hamilton blockade was erected in response to the Ontario Provincial Police arresting protesters and dismantling a blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville.
That Tyendinaga protest was in support of some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the passage of the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory in northern B.C. The Tyendinaga protesters had demanded the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory.
Just a short time before they ended a 24-hour rail blockade that shut down train service in and out of Hamilton, protesters hinted that this would not be the last of their efforts.
“If we‘re leaving, we’re leaving on a strong note – not in defeat,” Trish Mills, a well-known Hamilton anarchist who acted as spokesperson for the protesters, said around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. “We’re coming back.”
Her group had set up camp just as rush hour began Monday on the tracks at the Bayview Junction, a critical part of the Chicago-to-Toronto corridor, sharing service with freight trains as well as Amtrak, Via and GO trains.
Ms. Mills said Tuesday that her group was “mostly settler folks” who felt a responsibility to “be accountable” and stand up for Indigenous rights.
“Petitions, rallies in the street ... it’s not working. What is working, what is creating a lot of pressure, are these economic disruptions and actions,” she told The Globe in an interview around 3:20 p.m. Tuesday. “This isn’t about a pipeline, this is about Indigenous rights and Indigenous lives.”
Shortly after 5 p.m., they did.
Hamilton Police and CN staff remained on scene Tuesday evening to clear the remnants of the blockade. Metrolinx spokesperson Scott Money said Tuesday night that CN staff were checking the integrity of the tracks because the encampment had included several small campfires.
He could not say for certain whether GO train service would resume in Hamilton Wednesday morning, but said updates would be provided online as soon as possible.
A disruption of the Lakeshore East GO line around Guildwood station, in the city’s east end, ended before long, though Metrolinx said it would take some time for regular service to resume. Passenger back-ups were similarly projected to take time to clear on the Milton Line, where trains began running on a detour route after a protest site was established near Kipling station.
Trains on the Barrie line, meanwhile, were passing a disruption on the nearby CP tracks, a situation the transit agency was monitoring closely.
In recent years Metrolinx has made greater efforts to restrict access to its train tracks, as both a safety and security measure. But the network remains largely open, easily entered via level crossings or at stations.
Earlier Tuesday morning, a protest has halted train service at a crucial section of rail near Toronto, one of several demonstrations that sprang up across the country after police dismantled a weeks-long rail blockade near Belleville, Ont., on Monday.
A group known as “Wet’suwet’en Strong: Hamilton Solidarity,” set up an encampment on Monday evening at the Bayview Junction, a vital link in the Chicago-to-Toronto rail corridor that shares service with freight trains, Amtrak, Via, and GO Transit.
In a Facebook post, the group said that police had served them with a court injunction Monday night, which they said they “happily burned.”
Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said earlier Tuesday that she did not intend to direct police as they handle the new protests, and added that she was concerned that activists trespassing on or near train tracks were putting themselves in danger.
But she also said it was up to federal government to deal with the grievances behind the protests.
“This is not an Ontario problem. This is not a Quebec problem,” Ms. Jones told reporters. “It needs to be a nation-to-nation discussion. And Mr. Trudeau needs to lead that.”
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it was important that that the protesters’ message be heard. She said governments had done too little to solve the problems facing First Nations, such as tainted drinking water and youth suicide.
“I think that it’s been a very delicate situation at the blockades and I think that what we need to do though is recognize that these big picture issues need to be addressed,” Ms. Horwath said.
On Monday morning, one day after police asked protesters in Tyendinaga to leave their encampment, which had disrupted CN freight service to the point that businesses laid off workers and authorities warned about supply shortages, OPP officers arrived in force to dismantle the blockade, arresting 10 people. But the operation has only sparked new blockades and protests.
“Remember why we’re out here,” Hamilton Solidarity group wrote in a Facebook post Monday night. “The violence the state has perpetrated towards Indigenous land defenders and their supporters, the forced removal and criminalization of indigenous people from their lands. This is a pattern that has existed since settlers came to Turtle Island and that continue to exist today.”
In addition to the Bayview Junction blockade in Hamilton, a road blockade has also been set up along Highway 6 in Caledonia, shutting the road down between Argyle Street and Greens Road.
Another blockade sprang up in Sherbrooke, Que., Tuesday morning when about 20 protesters congregated along a rail line 150 kilometres east of Montreal. Protesters refused to speak to reporters on site, and Sherbrooke police have set up a security perimeter in the area.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Mark Miller said Ottawa is hoping to hear from the hereditary chiefs later Tuesday, saying the government is still committed to peacefully resolving the situation that has hampered freight and passenger travel in much of the country for nearly three weeks.
“A lot of this has to do with back and forth and discussions,” he said. “There is a path towards resolving this in a peaceful way.”
Mr. Miller’s comments come after multiple police operations aimed at clearing some of the most high-profile rail blockades.
A leader of a B.C. First Nation that neighbours Wet’suwet’en territory said 14 people were arrested on Monday at a blockade outside New Hazelton, B.C.
Gitxsan Nation Hereditary Chief Spookwx said he and three other hereditary chiefs were taken into custody as RCMP removed a demonstration on the CN Rail main line in northern B.C.
A similar blockade was set up by the Gitxsan earlier this month and removed as a show of good faith on Feb. 13.
But Spookwx, who also goes by Norm Stephens, said the protest resumed because RCMP have not acted quickly enough to leave the Wet’suwet’en territory.
All 14 demonstrators have since been released by Mounties, he said.
With reports from Jeff Gray and The Canadian Press
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