The red octagons that stand at intersections on this reserve near Belleville, Ont., say “TESTA’N” – “stop” in the Mohawk language.
This week, that message is rippling across the country, as protesters from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have ground freight and passenger traffic to a halt between Toronto and Montreal with a demonstration along the train tracks in support of the Wet’suwet’en anti-pipeline movement.
The de facto blockade is an unassuming sight: a snow plow, a porta-potty, fire burning in a rusted oil drum, perhaps a dozen men and women, some in camouflage. The encampment sits next to the tracks, not across them.
But despite its ragtag appearance, the protest has effectively put up a big sign saying TESTA’N on the railway, scuttling the plans of thousands of travellers and leaving untold millions worth of cargo stranded on the rails. With the demonstration entering its eighth day, and a new camp now established nearby, it is unclear when the stoppage will end.
Despite a nearly week-old court injunction and ambivalence from the First Nation’s leadership, the community largely supports the protesters, Tyendinaga business owner Tim Barnhart said.
“It’s the whole politics of pipelines that has angered our people, the way they’re rammed through without any forethought,” he said. “What’s happening in B.C. is happening here, in our hearts, in our minds.”
Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, the community at the heart of the standoff, has a long history of land claims, entrenched poverty and substandard infrastructure, along with a recent tradition of activism to fight back against perceived wrongs.
The Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, as their First Nation is called, arrived on the north shore of Lake Ontario in 1784, and have been trying to brush back incursions from settlers ever since. In its official history, the band describes the erosion of their original treaty lands in the subsequent decades as acreages were carved out for non-Indigenous families.
The territory was further reduced in later years by “crooked Indian agents who got people drunk and made them sign things,” said Robert Dorey, assistant to chief R. Donald Maracle. The band’s continuing land claim for an area called Culbertson Tract covers 923 acres.
The community also remains under a boil-water advisory despite recent funding commitments from the federal Liberal government and a costly water-treatment plant built on the reserve in 2016.
“For many years, there has been lots of poverty” in the First Nation, Mr. Dorey said. “Chief is trying to combat that by lobbying the provincial and federal government for more funding.” (Through his assistant, Mr. Maracle declined an interview request.)
When they have felt beleaguered in recent years, band members have also taken matters into their own hands with a string of dramatic protests not unlike the current rail standoff.
In June, 2007, community members blockaded a secondary highway and rail line to draw attention to their land claim, leading to a tense standoff with the Ontario Provincial Police that nevertheless ended peacefully.
During a 2008 protest at a gravel quarry on disputed land, which Mohawk activists had occupied, OPP officers drew their guns after receiving reports that one demonstrator had a firearm.
The current blockade shares aspects of physical, as well as tactical, continuity with those earlier actions. The black bus that activists have parked near the train tracks at their second encampment is a “legendary” relic of the band’s recent protests, a waitress at a nearby restaurant said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying her because she feared reprisals for speaking out.
Although many of the band’s earlier demonstrations have ultimately failed to resolve their grievances, she believes this time is different.
At the main encampment, a Mohawk activist who lives in Tyendinaga wore a medicine pouch around his neck and an eagle feather in his hair.
He feels it is the police and CN who are escalating tensions, not the protesters, whose camp is studiously set up a few feet behind the descending wooden arm that protects the track.
“We are polite, nice with them – and they don’t comply,” he said. “It’s been like that for 500 years.”
Demonstrator Blaine Grass emphasized that the protesters have taken efforts to lower tensions, allowing journalists, well-wishers and police to enter and leave the camp.
“This is a peaceful protest. This is not Oka,” he said, referring to a long standoff between Mohawk communities in Quebec and the Canadian army in 1990 over the expansion of a local golf course in which one Quebec police officer was killed.
He objects to the term blockade because he says the group has no intention of putting vehicles or people in the way of a train should one try to pass the camp – which he notes is on Mohawk land.
“Yesterday, the liaison [officer] comes up to us and says, ‘I’m tired, I wanna go home. Can we end this and you go home?’ ” Mr. Grass recalled. “I looked back and said ‘This is home.’ ”