Police in Canada have removed Indigenous activists from a railway line in Ontario, where a two-week protest against a contentious natural gas pipeline has blocked train traffic and fueled a growing political crisis for prime minister Justin Trudeau.
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.
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.
Several members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk nation were arrested on Monday when officers moved in to lift the blockade which had been erected in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia who are fighting a 416-mile pipeline through their traditional territory.
Ontario provincial police had warned the activists that they had until midnight Sunday to leave the area, or face arrest and charges.
Wet’suwet’en activists opposing the C$6.6bn (US$4.98bn) Coastal GasLink pipeline were forced to leave a remote camp which had been blocking construction on February 10th. But secondary protests sprang up across the country as demonstrators blocked railways, government buildings and ports.
Canadian National, which owns the rail line, won an injunction to clear the blockade near the city of Belleville, Ontario, in early February. But police, wary of violent standoffs in the 1990s with Indigenous groups, had so far been unwilling to forcefully remove the demonstrators.
Shortly after sunrise on Monday morning, however, dozens of officers descended on the blockade. Police barred media from the operation, but the confrontation was broadcast on a Facebook live broadcast.
Tyendinaga Mohawk activists heckled a phalanx of police officers, telling them they were standing on Indigenous land and had no authority.
Soon after, police moved in and detained at least six people. The remaining protestors moved back from the rail line.
The blockade of rail lines through Tyendinaga Mohawk territory has crippled much of Canada’s freight and commuter rail traffic, and the string of protests have been blamed for 1,400 layoffs at Canada’s main rail companies, propane shortages in eastern Canada and economic hardship for farmers.
The protests have piled pressure on Trudeau, who came to power promising reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations, but has supported the country’s fossil fuels industry.
Trudeau at first called for “dialogue and mutual respect” but by Friday, his patience had worn thin, and he bluntly told the protestors: “the barricades need to come down now.”
Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Woos has said he expects blockades and protests will continue throughout the country until the RCMP and pipeline workers leave Wet’suwet’en territory. Only once these conditions are met, the chiefs will be willing to meet with federal and provincial leaders.
Over the weekend, two new rail blockades were established in Saskatoon and Vancouver.