NEWS
02/21/2020 13:43 EST | Updated 02/21/2020 19:32 EST

Indigenous Rail Blockades Could Become Flashpoint For Far-Right Activity

The climate is rife for the conflict to “boil over” and threaten order, some experts say.

MONTREAL — Tensions around rail blockades such as the ones in Saint-Lambert and Edmonton show that the situation has “all the ingredients” for far-right groups to further escalate the conflict, according to some experts.

On Wednesday, a group of counter-protesters dismantled a barricade erected in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en on a CN railway just outside of Edmonton.

While it’s not known who organized the event, the men who removed the blockade were quickly congratulated by groups associated with far-right movements, as well as several right-wing commentators.

Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS
A counter-protester argues with supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs near Edmonton on Wednesday.

United We Roll called the dismantlement a “victory for the country.” The group has been described as a “a revisioned white nationalist, white supremacist movement” by McMaster University Prof. Ameil Joseph, who specializes in race theory, immigration and mental health.

Meanwhile, Rebel Media founder and right-wing commentator Ezra Levant promised to “send a case of beer” to one of the counter-protesters who dismantled the barricade “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

The counter-protester in question, Guy Simpson, launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to pay for “gas” while he “[clears] railway blockades across the country one at a time.”

Emotions were high in Saint-Lambert, Que., Thursday, as a crowd of citizens frustrated by the blockade on a suburban train line, which links the city to downtown Montreal, was growing around the protesters. Early in the morning, an unidentified man tried to dismantle part of the barricade, while swearing at the demonstrators.

There were other skirmishes throughout the day, as everyone waited to see if the police would enforce an injunction obtained by CN to clear the railway.

The ghost of Oka

As the parallels between the Oka crisis and the current conflict grow, will we see groups of citizens threaten to take matters into their own hands, as they did in 1990?

“During the Oka crisis, there were many serious incidents before the army was called in. It really got out of hand,” recalls Stéphane Leman-Langlois, co-director of the Observatory on Radicalization and Violent Extremism.

In one of those incidents, counter-protesters threw rocks at a convoy of cars carrying women, children and elderly people being evacuated from the Kahnawake reserve as the army was moving in. A man in his 60s was hit in the thorax by a rock that flew through the windshield and died of a heart attack the following day.

“The Ku Klux Klan was there,” says Oka crisis expert Pierre Trudel, who works as an associate researcher with the Canada Research Chair in Quebec and Canadian Studies. “The conflict had been going on for 50 days, so racist groups, with varying levels of mobilization, were gathering people to attend protests.”

Capture d'écran du documentaire Rocks At Whiskey Trench
A screenshot from the documentary "Rocks at Whiskey Trench."

Former police officer Yvon Poitras founded Solidarity Châteauguay, a militant group behind counter-protests that sometimes turned into riots to demand the Mercier bridge be reopened.

“We were hearing rumours of ‘White Warriors’ who were planning on arming themselves to take back the bridge,” says Trudel.

Thirty years later, Leman-Langlois believes “all the ingredients are there” for the far-right to meddle in the conflict.

“There’s the little ‘law and order’ sauce. These people like being on the side of law and order. And then there’s a crisis that demands urgent intervention. That’s exactly what it takes to mobilize these people,” the Laval University professor told HuffPost Québec. 

Leman-Langlois says members of the far-right movement, which has been more or less “dormant” in the last few months, “are trying to jump onto an event” to mobilize their base. The rail blockades, since they are linked to Indigenous Peoples, could fit the bill.

“These people think the state is too weak, too soft, and needs help imposing law and order. It is a classic discourse of the far-right,” says Leman-Langlois.

“It’s the same discourse that we heard about [then-Quebec premier] Bourassa. People said he was soft, soft, soft,” Trudel points out.

Fuel to the fire

Some comments from Conservative politicians such as Andrew Scheer, Peter MacKay and Maxime Bernier also risk adding fuel to the flames.

Scheer, the Conservative leader, told Indigenous protesters to “check their privilege” last week since many Canadians didn’t “have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade.” That’s the kind of comment that risks stirring racist sentiment in part of his base, says Leman-Langlois.

GEOFF ROBINS via Getty Images
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's comments about Indigenous protesters could stir up racist sentiment, a Laval University professor says.

MacKay, a Conservative leadership hopeful, was also embarrassed by a now-deleted tweet congratulating the counter-protesters who dismantled the Edmonton blockade. Many accused him of encouraging vigilantism, which risks causing more confrontations as the situation is already fraught with tension.

If these kinds of comments inspire other civilians across the country, Trudel believes it would be cause for alarm.

“It would no longer be an Indigenous issue. We would have a next-level crisis on our hands.”

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