‘Modest progress’ made in daylong talks over Ontario rail blockade, says Indigenous Services minister

The federal Indigenous Services Minister wrapped up daylong meetings with members of the Mohawk First Nation Saturday evening saying “modest progress” had been made in talks to end a blockade that has brought rail service throughout much of Eastern Canada to a virtual standstill.

Marc Miller said he plans to take what he learned after the meeting on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory back to Ottawa to share with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and cabinet.

He said the talks were productive, but there was no news on whether the protest was going to end.

Marc Miller and members of the Mohawk First Nation began discussions Saturday morning at the site where a handful of protestors were camped out for the 10th straight day in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia, who oppose the development of a liquefied natural gas pipeline crossing their traditional territory. 

Representatives from 20 First Nations along the pipeline route —  including the elected chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en —  signed agreements with Coastal GasLink consenting to the project. However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say those councils were established by the Indian Act and only have authority over reserve lands.

After meeting with the group for about an hour at the Wyman Rd. CN Rail crossing, about 200 kilometres east of Toronto, the discussion moved to the Mohawk Community Centre on Mohawk Tyendinaga Territory.

The meeting was described as “emotional” at times, according to people inside the room who spoke to CBC News.

Miller said upon arriving that he didn’t know whether he could convince the Mohawk to end the blockade and allow the resumption of rail services, but said he was there 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 before the meeting.

“We’re a nation of people that have stopped talking to each other. We tweet. We make statements on Facebook. We go around asking, condemning, but we’re not talking.”

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 on Friday.

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 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.

Protesters stand on the closed train tracks on the ninth day of the blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont. on Friday. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

“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 approach worked in B.C., where protestors blocking CN train tracks near New Hazelton in northern B.C., agreed to end their protest after both the provincial and federal governments agreed to sit down with Gitxsan hereditary chiefs.

Still, with new blockades and protests popping up in different places almost daily, the Liberal government risks losing control of the situation.

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.”

Canadian National Railway obtained a court injunction to end the demonstration on Feb. 7, but the Ontario Provincial Police have not enforced it.

WATCH | Coastal GasLink: Exploring Indigenous support and opposition

The $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline has received approval from the province, and 20 First Nations band councils, but the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say those band councils are only responsible for the territory within their individual reserves. 11:52

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.” 

Liberal government taking careful approach

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.”

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.

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