The rail blockade near Belleville, Ont., was coming to a head. More than a dozen provincial police stood opposite a smaller group of protesters, both sides visibly tense, and a camera was rolling.
“You’re on sovereign territory … every single one of you,” one of the demonstrators yelled, a bandana over his face. Another gave a high-pitched whoop.
When the officers moved forward, they grabbed hold of protesters and scuffled with those who resisted.
“Okay,” the man filming said. “We’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six arrests.”
The footage of the first physical confrontation between police and the mostly Mohawk activists who had ground the country’s rail traffic to a stop was posted to social media on Monday. It did not come from a traditional journalistic outlet, but from Real People’s Media, a little-known website dedicated to promoting Indigenous “political agendas,” which has provided the most detailed information about the status of the protests for nearly three weeks.
The site’s suddenly elevated profile and sharp, activist tone has raised questions about its leadership and goals.
“What they’re trying to do is push back against the bias that is clearly expressed by elected officials and the media,” said John Kane, a Mohawk radio host whose program, Let’s Talk Native, is featured on the site. “[They’re] really trying to give a more unvarnished view of reality. But from our perspective.”
Since the Feb. 6 launch of the blockade, Real People’s Media has had remarkably intimate access to the Mohawk encampment and leadership. The site published a transcript of the Feb. 15 meeting between Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Mohawk clan leaders that marked the first negotiations between protesters and the government – but which was closed to journalists.
It posted a wish list of supplies requested by residents of the encampment, including marine two-way radios, a police scanner and hand warmers.
The close relationship between the protesters and Real People’s Media revolves around Seth LeFort, who is both a prominent member of the protest and the website’s co-founder. A Mohawk from Tyendinaga, the community adjacent to the rail blockade, he also goes by the Mohawk name Kanenhariyo.
Mr. LeFort registered the site as a business with the Ontario government last year, and contributors say he continues to operate it, along with an activist named Tom Keefer. Neither responded to requests for an interview.
A statement on the website describes Real People’s Media as a “multimedia news and information network that expresses the interests, experiences, and viewpoints” of Indigenous people who act “in a manner consistent with the Kayanere’kowa,” or Great Law of Peace.
Mr. Kane, the radio host, says he has known Mr. LeFort since he was a teen, and that the young man showed promise early as an advocate for traditional culture.
“Seth became an activist at a fairly early age,” Mr. Kane said. “He was very good with the language. We saw him as one of these young guys who we felt very hopeful for.”
It appears that Real People’s Media was launched in late 2015, when its Facebook page became active. Since then it has expanded to include podcasts, long essays and some coverage of Indigenous business, and developed a following among Indigenous activists and intellectuals. Lynn Gehl, an Algonquin Anishinaabe author from the Ottawa River Valley who has written for Real People’s Media, said Mr. LeFort’s knowledge of Indigenous culture made him a valuable voice.
"Seth is providing an Indigenous perspective … not a colonial perspective,” she said. “It’s important that we have our own media out there.”
Andrew Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga who has participated in the railway demonstration, said Mr. LeFort’s site has gained the trust of some Indigenous readers who don’t trust the mainstream media to tell their stories accurately.
“It’s become more popular because people trust it to tell the truth,” he said.
In recent weeks, Mr. LeFort has assumed a leadership role in the Tyendinaga protests, as well as the outlet that has chronicled them most vividly. He was one of the first demonstrators to interact with police and acted as a spokesperson for the blockade early on, according to Ontario Provincial Police documents filed in court in support of CN Railway’s application for an injunction to dismantle the blockade. “Seth was very curt and sharpe [sic],” the officers wrote about one interaction on Feb. 10. “Very clear no trains will be going through.”
That has created an unusual dynamic: Mr. LeFort has been featured prominently in the site’s coverage of the protest, often discussing tactics or giving speeches, with no indication that he operates the site.
In a video posted on Sunday, he addresses a group near the train tracks, and says that because of an OPP ultimatum, the gathering must decide whether to leave or stay and face arrest.
“We so often have been convinced and coerced into believing we have to listen to someone," Mr. LeFort said. "But we’re free people and we’ve been this way for thousands of years. And free people make informed decisions about what they’re gonna do.”
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