OTTAWA — The Canadian police on Monday began moving against protesters who had set up transportation blockades around the country in sympathy with an Indigenous group’s campaign to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline to Canada’s West Coast.
The blockades affected at least 19,500 rail passengers, according to Via Rail Canada, and 200 freight trains were unable to travel.
By late Monday, more than 47 protesters had been arrested. The nationwide demonstrations had been set off by the recent arrests of 21 protesters at the pipeline construction site itself.
The first blockade appeared Thursday night and led to the shutdown of all rail passenger trains between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, as well as some freight trains. Another group was blocking freight and passenger rail traffic near Smithers, British Columbia.
Protesters also effectively ended operations at major ports in Vancouver and nearby Delta, British Columbia; shut down a commuter railway line in Montreal; and blocked traffic in Regina, Saskatchewan. A small group also occupied an area outside the Ottawa office of Canada’s justice minister.
The protests were in support of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, some of whose members are opposed to the construction of a 416-mile, 6.2 billion Canadian dollar project to link gas wells in the interior of British Columbia to a new liquefied natural gas terminal on the coast for export sales to Asia. For more than a year, members of the Wet’suwet’en have been blocking roads in Houston, British Columbia, where the pipeline is under construction.
The gas line is strongly supported by the government of British Columbia. And Coastal GasLink, the company behind the project, has signed construction agreements with the 20 elected Indigenous councils along the route and has promised to award 620 million Canadian dollars’ worth of contracts to Indigenous businesses.
But a number of chiefs who hold Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership fear the project will irrevocably alter their land. They oppose reaching any sort of agreement with the company or accepting any economic benefits.
The protests began after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved last week to enforce an injunction granted on Dec. 31 against the Wet’suwet’en who have been blocking the roads at the construction site.
Smogelgem of the Wet’suwet’en said he and other hereditary chiefs had been in talks with the province about the pipeline shortly before the police moved in last week. He said the arrests will only inflame the situation and prompt further protests elsewhere in the country.
“It’s guaranteed,” he said. “This is an uprising that’s happening all across the country.”
The police are now stopping most people, including members of the Wet’suwet’en, from entering a wide area around the protesters’ encampment. Access to the area by journalists has been limited to a few escorted visits; the national police force said in a statement that 21 people had been arrested there since Thursday, though eight have since been released without being charged.
On Monday before dawn in Vancouver, the police made 33 arrests at the entrance to the port. Video from the scene suggests that the arrests took place peacefully and that the police allowed other demonstrators to remain near the scene if they did not try to block the port. In nearby Delta on Monday, 14 protesters were arrested.
The Canadian National Railway company, which owns the tracks in British Columbia, as well as those in Ontario used by the Via Rail Canada passenger service, has obtained injunctions against the protesters in a bid to reopen its lines. There was no indication on Monday of how and when they may be enforced.
Chief R. Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte said the blockade on its territory east of Toronto, which has at times involved a snow plow and a sofa, was not authorized by the band council. He said he had first learned about it from the railway.
The Wet’suwet’en have never signed a treaty and in 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that they hold “Aboriginal title” to the territory now involved in the dispute.
Smogelgem said he and the other leaders will not end efforts to block the pipeline “until the RCMP get off our land and the Coastal GasLink company stops the pipeline.”