TYENDINAGA MOHAWK TERRITORY, ONT.—Waiting. Wondering. Waiting. And wondering.
More than a week into a rail blockade in support of Wet’suwet’en chiefs in British Columbia that has strangled commerce and passenger traffic across all of Eastern Canada, it still isn’t clear when — or how — the standoff will end. Talks with Ontario Provincial Police continue, while the federal Indigenous services minister has offered to meet with leaders wherever they want to discuss the situation.
And on a snowy country road outside Marysville, Ont. on Thursday, the small encampment at the centre of it all settled into strained normalcy.
Activists who call themselves “protectors” against colonialism milled about the tents and stacked wooden pallets of their camp on the south side of desolate Canadian National rail tracks that usually carry freight and passenger trains through the area with great frequency. Every so often, a car pulled up to drop off supplies at the camp, or pick up some activists and drop others off to man the site. And all the while, on the other side of the tracks, reporters with cameras and notepads waited for something to happen, glancing north up the road at an idle cluster of police cruisers.
It was just one of the demonstrations that Indigenous peoples and climate activists have staged across the country in recent days, after Mounties stormed a barricade in northern B.C. to clear out Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters who were blocking construction of the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline.
Facing subsequent blockades of traffic and the shipment of goods in major cities and at rail lines and ports across the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan separately agreed Thursday to send cabinet emissaries to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and members of the Gitxsan nation. In a letter to Simogyet Spookw, a Gitxsan chief, Trudeau wrote that the federal government will take part in a meeting to “discuss the current situation and to seek a process that avoids such situations in the future.”
At the same time, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller wrote to three Indigenous leaders in Ontario — including two from Tyendinaga territory — to offer a meeting this Saturday to discuss their blockade south of Hwy. 401 between Kingston and Toronto. Miller agreed to discuss relations between the Mohawk nation and the federal government, and asked for the protest camp along the tracks to be struck.
“My request, that I ask you kindly to consider, is to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable,” Miller wrote in the letter he posted online after sending it Wednesday night.
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“As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of the utmost importance to me. I hope you will agree to this request and that we can meet in the spirit of peace and co-operation that should guide our relationship,” he wrote.
Chief Don Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte confirmed he received Miller’s letter. In a phone interview, he welcomed the offer to discuss the situation but said he doesn’t expect the two camps along the rail tracks in his community to be taken down before the meeting.
“We’ll see what the meeting brings,” Maracle said. “We’ve had productive conversations with the activists and we want to keep the discussions going in a positive tone.”
Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald acknowledged in a statement to the Star that she also received Miller’s letter, and said she is “cautiously optimistic” he can help “secure peace” in the Tyendinaga territory.
“We have learned from the past and recognize that it is through dialogue and respectful conversation that we will resolve these issues and remain respectful of First Nations rights, sovereignty, communities and governance systems,” Archibald said.
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At Queen’s Park, Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford called on Ottawa to play a bigger role in ending the blockade. CN Rail announced Thursday that it will shut down its entire network in Eastern Canada, forcing Via Rail to suspend all passenger service. Cancellations in recent days have affected tens of thousands of passengers and stopped more than 400 train shipments, according to VIA and CN.
“We would like to see a more prominent position from the federal government on this because the issues that underpin this are serious national questions,” Rickford told reporters Thursday. “We believe if that can happen in a timely manner we’ll have a peaceful resolution to this situation.”
Rickford added he is pleased tempers have not flared along the tracks despite growing tensions over blocked passenger and freight trains and the impact on the economy. “It’s remained peaceful and we’d like to see it continue to be that way,” he said.
With the authority of a court order to clear the encampment, the OPP had cruisers near the Tyendinaga encampment again Thursday but made no move toward the blockade during the hours in which a Star reporter was there. OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said Thursday that the situation remained unchanged from the police perspective.
“There are negotiations ongoing,” he said. “We are standing by, monitoring the situation.”
On Wyman Rd., where the main encampment was set up Feb. 6, activists stood in a tight group next to a parked snowplow as a Mohawk flag tied to the upturned rail crossing gate flapped in the blowing snow. Alternately incommunicative and affable, the group of mostly men huddled in thick jackets and at one point strung up a large red banner on the side of a parked trailer that read, “Stop colonialism.”
They received visitors throughout the day, mostly well-wishers from nearby towns carrying bottles of water, snacks and other supplies.
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Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail came looking for reporters. Her main point of contention was the use of the term “protester” to describe people at the camp, who prefer to be referred to as “protectors.” As one woman put it to the Star, “We’re not protesting against the system, we’re trying to protect ourselves from the system” — meaning to protect their Mohawk nation and land against a government seen as a colonial trespasser that is stealing resources for its own enrichment.
Wabano-Iahtail, who said that as a Cree pipe-carrier she has an obligation to speak out against injustice, enumerated similar grievances. She said the demonstration at the rail line was about much more than the gas pipeline project being contested in B.C., describing the ongoing relationship between Indigenous peoples and “so-called Canada” as broken by centuries of “genocide.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that studied the legacy of residential schools concluded the system that removed Indigenous children from their families and communities was “cultural genocide.” The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls determined centuries of actions and failures amount to “genocide” — a finding that Trudeau said the government accepts.
“This is impacting all … the original nations of Turtle Island,” she said, referring to Indigenous nations across the country.
“We’re home, and we’re not going anywhere. And no longer will we be oppressed, no longer will we be subjugated, no longer will we be dehumanized, no longer will you terrorize us for free. That’s not happening anymore.”
Then she walked over to join the “protectors” in the camp. As darkness fell, there was no sign their position would change.