Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is meeting with members of the Mohawk First Nation at the site of a blockade in eastern Ontario that has shutdown rail lines across the region.
Miller said he could not predict whether the meeting would result in the end of the blockade — now in its 10th day — and the resumption of rail services, but added it was necessary for the two sides to start a dialogue.
“This is a situation that is very tense, very volatile, there are some people that have been standing out there for days, so today is a chance to talk and have a real discussion,” said Miller, upon arriving at the Wyman Rd. CN Rail crossing, about 200 kilometres east of Toronto.
A group of Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters have been camped there since last Thursday to show solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia, who oppose the development of a liquefied natural gas project that crosses their traditional territory.
The Mohawk gathered at the rail crossing on Saturday set up a table and chairs in advance of the minister’s arrival. Miller met with the group for just over an hour, and the discussion has since moved to the Mohawk Community Centre on Mohawk Tyendinaga Territory.
Train services suspended across Eastern Canada
The Ontario blockade, combined with similar efforts in B.C. and Quebec, resulted in Via Rail suspending passenger train service nationwide and Canadian National Railway Co. shutting down freight operations for Eastern Canada.
Miller acknowledged the difficulties that the blockades have caused for travellers and businesses, but stressed that the government’s approach was to negotiate, rather than have police dismantle them.
“All of Canada is hurting, the economy is slowing down,” said Miller. “Everyone knows the reports about supply shortages, but we can’t move forward without dialogue and that’s we’re going to do today.”
The Mohawk agreed to meet with Miller after he sent an invitation to some Mohawk leaders on Wednesday. Miller requested the meeting, he said, to “polish the silver covenant chain,” which the Mohawks say refers to one of the original agreements between the First Nation and the Crown.
Miller said he reached out to Mohawk leaders Seth LeFort, who goes by the Mohawk name Kanenhariyo, Chief Donald Maracle and regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
Industry wants injunctions enforced
Canadian National Railway obtained a court injunction to end the demonstration on Feb. 7, but the Ontario Provincial Police have not enforced it.
Ontario Provincial Police defended their handling of the situation, saying officers have been in talks with the protesters throughout the week — a move that’s in line with the force’s framework on resolving conflicts with Indigenous communities.
“The proper use of police discretion is a valid, appropriate approach to de-escalating situations such as this,” spokesperson Bill Dickson said in a statement. “The proper exercise of police discretion should not be confused with a lack of enforcement.”
A growing number of business leaders and industry groups called for government or police intervention in the shutdowns, and federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer took up the cry on Friday.
“Law enforcement should enforce the law,” he said. “We have court orders, we have court injunctions. They need to be respected.”
But Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the situation is more nuanced, acknowledging the fraught history between Ontario Provincial Police and Indigenous communities may call for a more delicate approach.
“Also remember that they have to take into account some history here when we’re talking about what happened at Ipperwash,” he said, referring to a violent 1995 standoff that resulted in the death of Indigenous activist Dudley George. “It is their decision about how to approach that.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed, noting that police forces have the right to use their discretion when addressing such situations.
“We are not the kind of country where politicians tell police what to do in operational matters,” Trudeau said at a press conference in Germany.
Police expected ‘to protect the rights of all involved parties’
The OPP came in for a significant share of blame for the Ipperwash standoff, according to the results of a public inquiry into the matter. Commissioner Sidney Linden found that “cultural insensitivity and racism” among OPP officers played a role in how the situation unfolded.
The framework currently in place was developed as a direct result of George’s death and explicitly calls for a measured response that takes Indigenous perspectives into account.
“It is the role of the OPP and all of its employees to make every effort prior to a critical incident to understand the issues and to protect the rights of all involved parties throughout the cycle of conflict,” the framework reads.
Dickson said that framework will continue to inform the OPP’s handling of the eastern Ontario blockade, which has involved no arrests so far.
“The OPP respects the right of everyone to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but we also recognize the rights of the general public, local residents and businesses to a safe environment,” he said.