Ontario Provincial Police officers lead away a man after making an arrest at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., on Monday Feb. 24, 2020, as they protest in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Indigenous leaders condemn police use of force to clear Ontario rail blockades

Ontario Provincial Police and CN Rail had given protesters until midnight Sunday to clear the blockade

A police operation that saw officers descend on a rail blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in central Ontario and arrest several protesters Monday seemed to stoke tensions even as it paved the way for train service to resume.

Ontario’s provincial police said officers moved in after efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution with the protesters were exhausted and a midnight deadline to clear the rail blockade, which has brought freight and passenger rail traffic in much of Eastern Canada to a virtual standstill, was ignored.

Politicians hailed the police raid on the blockade near Belleville, Ont., but the use of force angered Indigenous leaders, community members and advocacy groups who had hoped for a peaceful resolution.

“Today’s arrests of First Nations activists at Tyendinaga shows once again that we will never achieve reconciliation through force,” said Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in a statement. “The Crown is removing people from their lands but is not removing the central barrier to progress — action on long-standing issues of First Nations title and rights.”

The Mohawk people of Tyendinaga also condemned the use of force by police, saying the protesters were “standing up for human rights and the land and water.”

“The rule of law includes human rights and Indigenous rights,” they said.

The raid started at 8:30 a.m. when a column of police vehicles drove up the dirt road toward the blockade. Dozens of police officers then lined up in front of the protesters at the encampment, which has been in place since Feb. 6.

Officers detained a few demonstrators, wrestling one to the ground before taking the group away. The officers held the line near the tracks until about 9:15 a.m. when they moved in again to arrest more men and take control of the area around the tracks.

Police later said 10 people were arrested and are facing multiple charges. They said all 10 have been released with conditions but provided no further details.

The protesters had set up the blockade in support of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, who oppose the development of a natural gas pipeline project that crosses their traditional territory in northwestern B.C. The Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, however, has the support of elected band councils along the pipeline route.

Numerous similar rail and road blockades have sprung up in multiple provinces throughout the month, halting freight and passenger train service for much of the country.

One of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Na’moks, offered words of encouragement for the Ontario protesters.

“They’re doing the right thing for the right reasons,” said the chief, who also goes by John Ridsdale.

He later said those who visited Mohawk supporters in Ontario have returned to B.C., and that while he previously believed the RCMP was removing its mobile detachment from the First Nation’s territory, he now believes it has simply been shut down because there is a new gate blocking a turnoff towards it.

The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have called for the removal of the RCMP mobile unit, the end of foot patrols and the removal of Coastal GasLink workers from the territory as conditions for meeting with the federal government.

Meanwhile, about 200 protesters marched through downtown Ottawa in support with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders.

And in B.C., members of the Gitxsan First Nation erected a new blockade on a rail line outside of New Hazelton. Protesters also returned to the Port of Vancouver and the B.C. legislature in Victoria on Monday afternoon.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the federal government remained committed to the reconciliation agenda.

“But at the same time, the impact of these rail disruptions is untenable. It can’t continue,” he said.

The Canadian Press

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