Protesters have maintained a blockade that has paralyzed rail shipment in Eastern Canada despite an order from the Ontario Provincial Police to dismantle their demonstration by midnight or face an investigation and possible charges.
The Tyendinaga protest near Belleville, Ont., began on Feb. 6 in support of five 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 British Columbia. While other rail blockades and protests have sprung up across the country, this small encampment by the tracks has been the most economically disruptive, halting freight service on Canadian National Railway’s Eastern Canadian network and leading to the suspension of most of Via Rail’s passenger trains.
Overnight, a handful of OPP officers kept watch over the Tyendinaga blockade as they had since the demonstration began. Police have been reluctant to move in and enforce a court injunction obtained by CN, saying that the police service’s primary goal was “preserving the peace.”
The protesters broadcast their own livestream from their side of the site starting shortly before midnight. At its peak about 1,400 people were watching, with dozens of commenters expressing support. The stream shut down just after 1:30 a.m., with the videographer noting that nothing was happening.
OPP liaison officers met with a member of the Mohawk Nation on Sunday afternoon to deliver a message from CN. A video of the 20-minute meeting was posted online by the Real Peoples Media, a multimedia news and information network.
“We bring the message, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent: CN has made us aware they are willing to not have the OPP investigate any criminal charges so long as the site is cleared by 11:59 tonight,” the unidentified officer relays to a protester.
An official from CN joined the meeting mid-way through and reiterated that if protesters vacate the property Sunday night, the railway “is not looking to pursue charges.”
The OPP did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s request for comment.
The potential of police action at Tyendinaga follows a statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday that called for an immediate end to the rail blockades. The railway closures have raised concerns about shortages of critical supplies of everything from propane to water-treatment chemicals and have led to temporary layoffs of nearly 1,500 workers at Via and CN. The federal government initially attempted to end the dispute through dialogue.
“Here’s the reality: Every attempt at dialogue has been made. The discussions have not been productive. We can’t have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table," Mr. Trudeau said Friday of attempts to talk with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
“Of course, we will never close the door on dialogue, and our hand remains extended should someone want to reach for it,” he added. “But the fact remains, the barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld.”
Mr. Trudeau’s comments did not quell anti-pipeline protests on the weekend. A new rail blockade was established alongside Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in Saskatoon, and roughly 40 people set up a blockade of CN’s railway near the port in Vancouver.
The countrywide demonstrations began after the RCMP enforced a court injunction against opponents of the pipeline project and arrested 28 people along a logging road near Houston, B.C.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline would stretch across 670 kilometres, transporting natural gas to LNG Canada’s $18-billion export terminal, which is under construction in Kitimat, B.C. All 20 elected First Nation councils along the pipeline’s route support the project. However, a group of Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary house chiefs has led a vocal campaign to oppose the pipeline’s construction, saying hereditary leaders have jurisdiction over their unceded traditional territory located outside of federal reserves, not elected band councillors. About 190 km of the pipeline route cross the Wet’suwet’en territory.
The hereditary chiefs were expected to return to British Columbia Sunday after visiting the Tyendinaga blockade and another Mohawk blockade at Kahnawake, south of Montreal, to thank them for their solidarity. A protest in Kahnawake Mohawk Territory has shut down one of Montreal’s commuter train lines.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Woos of Grizzly House, who also goes by Frank Alec, has said protests and blockades will continue until the RCMP and Coastal GasLink workers leave their traditional territory. Once these conditions are met, he said his people would be willing to engage in nation-to-nation talks with the B.C. and federal governments.
He told reporters on Saturday that Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller had not responded to requests for further talks.
“It seems to me like ever since Mr. Trudeau has made his announcement, the communication has ceased,” he said.
But Vanessa Adams, a spokeswoman for Mr. Miller, said the minister had reached out to the chiefs after Friday’s press conference “and is returning all communications from Chiefs and other representatives.
“We remain committed to meeting and pursuing an open dialogue,” she said Sunday by e-mail.
Zachary Coldwell, a spokesman for Carolyn Bennett, the Minister for Crown-Indigenous Relations, said in an e-mail that the minister had repeatedly been in contact with the hereditary chiefs and hoped to meet them in person, although “we are still working with the Chiefs to determine a time and date that works for them" to discuss the “many long-standing issues the community would like addressed.”
The B.C. RCMP said that they have shuttered their temporary base on Wet’suwet’en territory, on the same logging road where Mounties moved in earlier this month to restore the company’s access to the final two sections of the pipeline route. But, officers are still patrolling the road daily from the detachment in Houston, B.C., a 40-minute drive away, to ensure that the crucial arterial is not obstructed again, said RCMP spokeswoman Dawn Roberts.
“Our sole focus is the roadway,” said Ms. Roberts, head of communications for the RCMP in the province.
The hereditary chiefs want the Mounties to stop patrols of the logging road. “Out means out,” the chiefs stated in a news release Friday.
The chiefs are also demanding that TC Energy – the company behind the pipeline project – cease all activities within their territory.
Ms. Roberts said top Mounties are still negotiating with the hereditary chiefs over their operations in the area. Calgary-based TC Energy did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair stressed on Sunday the importance of finding resolution to the rail blockades.
“We all understand the importance of a peaceful resolution, but a speedy resolution, because the impact of these barricades is unacceptable, untenable,” Mr. Blair said on CTV’s Question Period. "It can’t be maintained because of the harm that it is causing.”
He said that "we have confidence in the police to do the job peaceably.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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