Who and What’s Behind the Blockades Disrupting Canada’s Rails

Who and What’s Behind the Blockades Disrupting Canada’s Rails


A long-running dispute over a pipeline in British Columbia has turned into a national political storm, caused layoffs in the rail industry and raised broader economic fears.

After a two-week period that elevated the national political temperature, disrupted much of rail service in eastern Canada and led to layoffs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an end to the blockades in support of hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs in British Columbia.

It started as a solidarity protest along a key railway line in Ontario by a small group of Mohawks. But it ballooned into a series of nationwide disruptions of various sizes and duration. Traffic was snarled in cities, ports were cut off and British Columbia’s legislature was effectively closed off. While some of the other protests, like the first one, mainly involved other Indigenous groups, many have included non-Indigenous individuals who appeared to be acting more in opposition to energy pipelines than in sympathy with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ land claims.

One factor in Mr. Trudeau not calling for an end to the barricades earlier, as I wrote earlier this week, was the lingering memories of standoffs between police and Indigenous people in Oka, Quebec, and Ipperwash, Ontario, during the 1990s.

[Read: As Canada’s frustrations grow over rail blockade, Trudeau gets heckled.]

In Oka, an early police move led to an officer’s death and escalated the situation to the point where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the army moved in. When the Ontario Provincial Police, acting on what was ultimately determined to be unfounded rumors, stormed protesters at Ipperwash, one of them was killed. In both cases, it was never determined who was responsible.

The current blockades have largely remained peaceful, even when a counter protest group tore down barriers on train tracks in Edmonton. But this situation involves a large array of people, agendas and issues that span much of the country. So here’s a brief guide to the players and the issues:

Fracking, along with persistently low natural gas prices. New techniques like hydraulic fracturing will soon make the United States, the main user of Canadian natural gas, self-sufficient in the fuel.

The answer proposed by both Liberal and New Democratic governments in British Columbia is a plant that will liquefy natural gas near Kitimat, where tankers bound for Asia will be filled. The plant is being built by a group led by Shell and Petronas, the latter being a Malaysian oil and gas company.

For more than a year, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have been trying to block construction of a pipeline linking B.C.’s gas fields to that plant. Known as Coastal GasLink, it’s a project of TC Energy, the pipeline company known until recently as TransCanada.

Because the pipeline is entirely within the province’s boundaries, the federal government had no significant role in its approval.

Not at all. Like any group in Canada, there’s not unanimity among the members of the Wet’suwet’en on this or most other major issues. But figuring out what the consensus is within their community is a difficult task in part because the First Nation has two different leaderships.

The 20 band council along the route all support the pipeline project, which is committed to hiring Indigenous people and to spending millions of dollars with Indigenous businesses.

But the band councils, which are elected, were put in place by the federal government in 19th century. So many people within the traditional community view their authority as being limited to narrowly defined reserve lands and recognize the hereditary chiefs as the authority over traditional lands.

In 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that the Wet’suwet’en hold “aboriginal title” to a wide area they define as traditional land in a decision brought by the hereditary chiefs.

Despite their title, hereditary chiefs do not automatically assume office or hold it indefinitely. Last year, three of them, all women who are in favor of the pipeline, were stripped of their titles and replaced by men — a move which they say is inconsistent with Wet’suwet’en traditional law. Lawyers for the current hereditary chiefs have argued in court that the women received funding from the provincial government to promote the pipeline.

The greatest effect has come from a persistent blockade, which is actually a makeshift trackside camp, is at Tyendinaga, Ontario. The Canadian National Railway passes near property that members of the Mohawk First Nation say was granted to their ancestors when they came to Canada with the British after the Revolutionary War in the American colonies.

The camp appeared not long after the Mounties moved in to enforce an injunction against members of Wet’suwet’en blocking Coastal GasLink construction. When I visited the camp during its first week, everyone I spoke with said it was set up spontaneously and was intended both to show solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en opponents and their land claims and to draw attention to Mohawk land disputes. The Mohawks there have a long history of disrupting the rail line in protests.

The camp is not endorsed by the local band council leadership and is relatively small in numbers. No one acts as an official spokesman, although three or four of its members appeared to have informal leadership roles.

Everyone I spoke with said they were Mohawk. Although some of them lived in other First Nations in Ontario and Quebec and at least one was a resident of Ottawa.

Many of the Mohawks at Tyendinaga have said that they’ll let trains roll again if the Mounties leave Wet’suwet’en territory. The police force has offered to move its temporary detachment at the pipeline into a nearby town if the construction road remains open. As of midday Friday, no one in the Indigenous community has said if that would satisfy them.

Legal experts agree that neither the federal nor the provincial governments have the power in this case to order police to move in, tear down the blockades and arrest the protesters. The potential for violence aside, there is little guarantee that other blockades won’t immediately replace them elsewhere.

Finally sorting out the hereditary chiefs’ grievances over Coastal GasLink will most likely be a protracted affair. One that will continue much longer than the nation will tolerate the disruption and economic costs of the blockades.

  • The novels of Charles Portis, who died this week, often included tales of misfits in unusual circumstances. And his obituary reveals that his own life featured a great and improbable turn. Some disclosure: The article notes that his books have a “cult following.” I am among the cultists.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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