Ontario Provincial Police officers shut down a weeks-long rail blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory Monday, however, a broader conversation about Indigenous rights has only just begun.
Dozens of OPP officers were enforcing an Ontario court injunction to clear the railway near Belleville, Ont. so trains could resume cargo and passenger service. Officers arrested several of the protesters who were standing in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs against the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C.
The police action was streamed across social media, sparking demonstrations in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Kahnawake, Que., south of Montreal, and provoked messages of condemnation from politicians and activists across the country.
First Nations lawyer Sara Mainville told HuffPost Canada that the patience of Indigenous communities “is wearing very thin.”
“Sometimes [blockades] are the only course of action you have left,” she said.
She answered some questions about today’s events and what needs to happen next.
Does the OPP have the power to make arrests in Mohawk Territory?
In this case, yes. The OPP has the authority to enforce the court injunction despite Tyendinaga having its own police service. The rail tracks also run through its territory protected under the 1793 Treaty 3 ½, which is called the Simcoe Deed.
Regardless, in Ontario the OPP carries out many federal duties, including upholding court injunctions, similar to how the RCMP operates in provinces such as B.C. In this case the OPP has overarching (and controversial) power over Indigenous people, Mainville said.
The OPP said in a statement early Monday that it had been in talks with the Tyendinaga people, but has a legal responsibility to enforce the injunction.
“The OPP notes the broader societal impacts of this extended protest have correspondingly increased risks to public safety closer to the protest sites,” said spokesperson Bill Dickson in a statement. “Unfortunately, all avenues to successfully negotiate a peaceful resolution have been exhausted and a valid court injunction remains in effect.”
Does the court injunction apply to protesters even if they’re not on the train tracks?
Most likely, yes. The wording in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice injunction, obtained by CN Rail earlier this month, is broad, said Mainville.
Protesters and journalists have reported that the rail tracks are not actually blocked, but the court order forbids any interference with the rail line.
That could include throwing objects onto the tracks, or making it unsafe for the train to pass through.
“Even counselling the protesters could get you in trouble,” Mainville said.
In a statement, the Mohawk people in Tyendinaga said they aren’t in violation of the injunction because they were adjacent to the tracks, technically on their territory, and had not physically interfered with trains passing through.
What issues do some First Nation communities want addressed?
Tyendinaga Mohawks are requesting the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en Territory, according to their statement. They also say they haven’t had a promised follow-up meeting with Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are requesting the RCMP close its detachment and stop patrols and that Coastal GasLink halt work on their territory.
Wet’suwet’en First Nation needs to be acknowledged as the main government of the land, said Mainville. When energy companies wish to build projects through their territory, they need to be considered as not just a stakeholder, but the main player.
“It’s not a specific consultation project that’s gone wrong,” said Mainville. “It’s the fact these folks have claimed this land for a very long time, but we live in this upside down world in Canada where we have to claim land we’ve owned for millennia. It’s injust.”
Miller told reporters in the hours following the OPP arrests Monday that the RCMP has closed its outpost, but that wasn’t to the satisfaction of the hereditary chiefs.
He said the federal government remains open to talks with the chiefs, recognizing that “we are not fighting only days of suspicion and mistrust, but decades, centuries even.”
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett added that the government was hopeful the hereditary chiefs would signal to their supporters “coast to coast to coast” that the talks were to their satisfaction.
The RCMP told CBC News they’re continuing patrols through Wet’suwet’en territory to monitor the service road where demonstrations and blockades took place in early February.