Canada: thousands of travelers affected as Indigenous-led rail blockade continues


Protesters defy court order to block rail tracks in support of Wet'suwet'en, locked in battle over controversial gas pipeline

Protesters in Belleville, Ontario. Canada's transport minister Marc Garneau warned that the rail blockade could have grave economic consequences.Photograph: Alex Filipe/Reuters

Thousands of travelers in Canada[2] have been affected and billions of dollars worth of freight traffic delayed as an Indigenous-led blockade of critical rail lines[3] continues to cripple the country's train network.

Via Rail, the crown corporation that operates much of Canada's commuter rail service, announced on Wednesday that trains on the Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa routes would be halted until at least Friday. More than 150 passenger trains have been cancelled since the blockade began, forcing an estimated 24,000 people to find alternate travel routes. Canadian National Railway, which owns the tracks, warned it "will be forced to shut down significant parts" of its vast Canadian network, which moves oil, grain and forestry products to markets in Asia and the United States, unless a resolution is reached.

For the past week, Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters in Ontario have defied a court injunction and blocked railway tracks in support Wet'suwet'en activists in British Columbia who are locked in a standoff over a multibillion-dollar natural gas pipeline[4] that would cross through their traditional territory.


Who are the Wet'suwet'en?

The Wet'suwet'en nation have lived on their territories in what is now British Columbia for thousands of years. They have never signed treaties or sold their land to Canada[5].  With a population of about 5,000, the Wet'suwet'en are composed of five clans (Gilseyhu, Likhts'amisyu, Laksilyu, Tsayu and Gidimt'en), which are further divided into 13 house groups, each with its own distinct territories.  

The Unist'ot'en, the People of the Headwaters, belong to the Gilseyhu clan.  Hereditary chiefs are responsible for the health and sustainability of their house group territories, and Wet'suwet'en law prohibits trespass on the territory of other the house groups.  Wet'suwet'en people have retained their legal traditions and continue to govern themselves through the Bahtlats (feast hall), where decisions are ratified and clan business is conducted.

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CN moves billions of dollars in freight each year, and Canada's transport minister Marc Garneau warned that the rail blockade could have grave economic consequences.

"It is illegal. It infringes on the Railway Safety Act. It's dangerous to block the rails so we're very concerned about it from that point of view," said Garneau.

While the federal government has expressed growing concern at the protracted rail blockade, enforcement of injunctions is a provincial issue, meaning Ontario and Quebec must each negotiate with residents of Mohawk territory. Tyendinaga Mohawk have told media they will not end their protest until the Royal Canadian Mounted police withdraw from Wet'suwet'en territory where a group of activists has been blocking the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Despite a court order demanding construction workers be granted access to the land, the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have nonetheless withheld consent[6] for the project.

In a string of raids this month, the RCMP have dismantled four camps[7] and arrested 28 people. But solidarity protests have sprung up across Canada this week, with activists also blocking railway tracks in British Columbia and briefly barricading British Columbia's legislative assembly. On Monday, police arrested more than 50 people blocking access to Vancouver's ports.

The group behind that protest plans to challenge the injunction on Wednesday, contending they never had a chance to challenge the document in court.

Speaking while on a visit to Senegal, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said: "We recognize the important democratic right - and will always defend it - of peaceful protest.

But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected."



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