Idle No More was the start … rail blockade is next chapter

(Photo by Simran Duhunna | Twitter)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Canada “settler economy” gets a history lesson from Indigenous communities

Indigenous demonstrations across Canada shut down parts of the Canadian National Railway, one of the largest railroads in North America.

“Some have called this a wake-up call for Canada. They’re wrong. The wake-up call came several years ago with the Idle No More movement. Instead, Canadians hit the snooze button in the hopes that we would go away,” wrote Aboriginal columnist Doug Cuthand for the Star Phoenix. “Idle No More showed our people the power of joint action. Now there are blockades and protests all across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en.”

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed a $6.6 billion pipeline entering their unceded territory. Wet'suwet'en Nation even proposed an alternate route to Coastal GasLink, the natural gas company, but the company refused.

Indigenous blockades and demonstrations in the last few weeks across Canada have led to the shutdown of railways, layoffs, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau canceling a trip to handle “infrastructure disruptions” in the country. The blockade in Tyendinaga, Ontario, is in it’s 12th day. It’s near the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. There was a blockade in Vancouver this past Saturday with approximately 100 demonstrators. There’s an event today at McGill University in Montreal and another in Ottawa’s Confederation Park.

This morning, Trudeau met with the Incident Response Group, made up of his cabinet members, to create a plan on how to resolve the railroad blockades “quickly and peacefully.” He also said he made some phone calls to premiers and Indigenous leadership.

Candis Callison, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Journalism and in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, has been following the demonstrations and even speaks about what’s happening in Wet'suwet'en territory on the roundtable podcast, Media Indigena. In fact, to get to her homelands, Tahltan territory, she has to go through Wet'suwet'en territory.

Callison said this all goes back to the history of Canada, one that the education system has started to include recently. Besides the history lesson, what she is really looking at is the solidarity among Indigenous nations.

“And what's been really fascinating is to see how it's been taken up across the country, how other Indigenous nations have stood with Wet'suwet'en, have recognized what's at stake for them,” she said. “But you know, what's really broadly at stake for Indigenous people and their relationships with lands and waters.”

For those in the United States, she said “you can hear echoes of Standing Rock in this so there’s a lot of things in play like a history of resistance, the court cases, and with Wet'suwet'en people specifically resisting continually, and they still have a very strong potlatch system.” They still have their hereditary chiefs who are speaking for the people, she said.

To put it in a nutshell, the British Columbia and Canadian government have a long history with the Indigenous Nations and as Cuthand referred to, this crisis shows the “deep roots in the Canada-First Nations relationship.”

“It relates to the state of land claims in British Columbia, lack of relevant Indigenous governing structures and the threat to the environment,” he wrote. “This whole imbroglio is the fault of racism and colonialism on the part of the corporations and the federal and provincial governments.”

“These protests indicate that our people are frustrated and will not be denied. We have a long history of being pushed aside and not allowed to participate in the economy. It’s karma that the railways are feeling the brunt of the protests. It was the building of the railway that led to our treaties and confinement on reserves. They are the authors of their own misfortune,” Cuthand said.

On Saturday, the Canadian National Railway said it’s entire eastern network has been shut down due to the blockades and it’s affected the cargo and passenger trains. The company carries goods worth 250 billion Canadian dollars. The railway connects the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast, and transports manufactured and consumer goods.

“Unfortunately, service to VIA Rail and Amtrak has been discontinued across Canada. It is unsafe to allow passenger trains to start trips across our network when we have no control over where, when, or how an illegal blockade may occur. It would be irresponsible to allow the travelling public to be trapped in a blockade,” said JJ Ruest, president and chief executive officer of Canadian National Railway in a Feb. 15 statement.

The railway company also said they are concerned for the demonstrators’ safety.

‘’The protesters trespassed on active railway tracks and on active trains to hang their banners and take photos of themselves. Trespassing on railway property and tampering with railway equipment is not only illegal, but also exceedingly dangerous. A train can arrive or a railcar can move at any time. A serious and even fatal incident could be the outcome,” Ruest said in the statement. “Safety is a core value at CN and every time a breach like this occurs, we send railway experts to inspect the track and equipment for the safety of our employees and the public, which further slows the movement of goods.”

The railway blockades resulted in temporary layoffs in Montreal, Charny in Quebec, Eastern Passage in Nova Scotia, and Moncton in New Brunswick, according to CBC on Feb. 16. Alexandre Boulé, spokesperson for the Canadian National Railway, told CBC in an email, "Our shutdown is progressive and methodical to ensure that we are well set up for recovery, which will come when the illegal blockades end completely.”

Canadian National Railway did not return Indian Country Today’s request for a comment.

Bruce Snow, a spokesperson for the union, told CBC, "We do, however, anticipate a much larger impact should the blockades continue to reduce or shut down the CN eastern network."

The Canadian Propane Association is worried about the propane rationing during the winter while the Retail Council of Canada says there could be a shortage of consumer goods if the blockades continue.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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