Joel Kom and Peter Brieger, with files from Katie Rook and Natalie Alcoba
National Post and CanWest News Service
Published: Saturday, April 22, 2006
TYENDINAGA, Ont. and TORONTO - A group of Mohawk protesters shut down a key railroad corridor yesterday -- stranding passengers and freight across two provinces -- to show support for aboriginals staging their own protest about 300 kilometres away.
Although demonstrators from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation Territory near Belleville agreed last night to dismantle the barricade, their day-long protest halted railroad traffic on a typically busy section of the Montreal-Toronto corridor and left about 3,500 VIA Rail passengers stuck across Ontario and Quebec.
Rail operator Canadian National went before a judge yesterday afternoon to get an injunction against the protesters in a bid to protect the $102-million worth of cargo shipped along the line daily.
Members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation Territory began burning bonfires around 1 a.m. yesterday and parked themselves, their cars and a brown school bus at a railroad crossing about 20 kilometres east of Belleville.
Meanwhile, the standoff that provoked yesterday's sympathy train blockade continued in Caledonia. Negotiations to end the land claim dispute, now in its 54th day, stretched into the evening at a hotel in nearby Burlington.
The talks involved representatives from the federal and provincial governments, OPP, RCMP, the Six Nations Confederacy and Henco Industries Limited, the disputed tract's developer.
Six Nations of the Grand River natives have occupied the subdivision project, ignoring a March 9 court injunction that they leave. Yesterday was quiet with police taking a restrained approach.
On Thursday, police staged a pre-dawn raid and arrested 16 people in a bid to end the protest but instead provoked anger. Natives from other parts of Canada and the United States joined the demonstration.
The Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters decided to take down their railway blockade when they received confirmation "meaningful" negotations were taking place in the Caledonia dispute, said Sergeant Kristine Rae of the OPP's Smiths Falls East Region Headquarters.
CN officials planned to inspect the rail line near the site and start trains rolling again last night, she added.
Yesterday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty admitted the government was "struggling" with the Caledonia dispute but said he did not believe the standoff would explode into the kind of violence the country witnessed during the 1990 Oka crisis.
"I don't envy the police in this matter because at some point in time, they've got to uphold the law. Negotiations are continuing but at some point, the court order has to be executed."
Yesterday, the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation protest left about a dozen CN freight trains, some carrying perishable goods, to sit idle across Ontario and Quebec, while several other trains never left the yard.
In an affidavit filed yesterday, CN warned that customer delays will "exceed the time of the actual blockade" because clients can't absorb "two days' worth of traffic in one day."
The cost of those delays will be much greater than the expense of individual train delays, CN said in the court documents.
Christopher Bredt, a CN lawyer, told Mr. Justice Colin Campbell of Ontario's Superior Court of Justice that the blockade was hatched to show sympathy for the Six Nations protesters who have barricaded themselves on a piece of land in Caledonia, claiming the tract as theirs.
Noting that the 30-odd Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation protesters have "no particular dispute" with the rail operator, Judge Campbell said he was "satisfied an injunction should be ordered" to end the blockade.
"There is no basis for a legal dispute between the blockaders and CN," the judge said.
At Union Station yesterday, Via Rail staff were telling throngs of travellers that they would be taking a bus to Montreal or Ottawa, including first-class passengers.
Signs read "sold out" for trips to the two cities and passengers were told that -- if they don't have a ticket already -- they would be out of luck.
Malcolm Andrews, a Via spokesman, said about 3,500 passengers travelling on two dozen trains in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor were affected.
Highway buses seat about 47 people, Mr. Andrews said, adding that 2,100 travellers booked for travel today would be accommodated.
The rail line runs about 22 trains between Toronto and Ottawa or Montreal each day.
The atmosphere around the Tyendinaga protest was calm all day, even as both the Tyendinaga Mohawks and the Ontario Provincial Police acknowledged the potential for volatility.
Shawn Brant, a Tyendinaga Mohawk and the de facto spokesman for the group, said earlier in the day -- before protesters agreed to remove the blockade -- that demonstrators would continue to block the railroad tracks despite the CN injunction. The plan was to keep things peaceful and keep talking to police and CN, he said, but protesters were ready for anyone who would try to remove them.
"We have an uncanny ability to defend ourselves," Mr. Brant said, refusing to specify whether the group carried weapons.
Mr. Brant said there was a mutual understanding between the group and police that nothing would happen until protesters found out whether Six Nations representatives would get a chance to talk with government officials.
"We've got millions of dollars that we're holding up and I think that if they took an aggressive action against us before the outcome of the talks was revealed, we'll be ready to defend ourselves and respond in kind," he said.
Also earlier in the day, Sgt. Rae said police allowed the protesters to make their point. She was unsure how things would be handled, but said she thought both sides had a good start by keeping the lines of communication open.
"They want to get their word out, we've let that happen," she said.
OPP officers stood at the end of the gravel road that crosses the railway tracks, about 300 metres from the protesters. Officers would regularly pull out binoculars to see what was happening.
Every car that drove along the gravel road toward the school bus drew protesters' attention and they were quick to clear the roadway. They restricted access to the tracks themselves.
A Transport Canada official would occasionally check in with the protesters to see whether there was any damage to the track.