Feb 17, 2020
Indigenous-led protests against unauthorized pipeline construction on tribal lands in northwestern British Columbia have spread across Canada. Main rail routes for freight and passengers have been shut down. Shipping ports have been blocked and protestors have occupied government buildings.
In early February, indigenous communities in British Columbia, opposed to construction on a new 5 billion dollar gas pipeline—part of a larger, 40 billion dollar project—interrupted rail traffic on the west coast of Canada.
Harsh police action and arrests of Wet’suwet’en First Nation tribe members on the west coast caused sympathy protests to spread to the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. Indigenous young people have been the primary force behind the blockade of more than 400 trains since February 6. Indigenous people are 5% of the Canadian population, but are the most oppressed and impoverished layer.
A member of Indigenous Youth for Wet’suwet’en said that disruptions to rail traffic wouldn’t have been necessary, had Canada conducted itself as it promised. Protesters seek to protect the livelihoods of their families. Another spokesperson said, “Indigenous people see what’s happening to us and see what’s happening to our territory and our pristine waters—and to our people on the ground, having semiautomatic weapons aimed at us. People are responding to that in appropriate ways.”
On the east coast of Canada, in the more densely populated province of Ontario, members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk tribe have mobilized and are disobeying a court injunction to stop the protests.
In response, Canadian National (CN) railway, Canada’s largest freight operator, suspended operations all across Canada. Via Rail, which operates the nation’s passenger trains, announced it is suspending train service until further notice. Meanwhile, environmental groups are joining the protest.
According to CBC News (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.), big business is pressuring the Canadian government to resolve the conflict, saying a prolonged shutdown of railways could devastate the economy. CN moves more than 250 billion dollars a year in goods across its transcontinental network. This includes food and consumer items, grain, de-icing fluid for airports, construction materials, propane supplies for heat, and natural resources like lumber, aluminum and coal.
The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, who came to power promising to improve relations with Canada’s indigenous people, has been pushing for negotiations to resolve the conflict. The leader of the Conservative party in Canada has said that unless police are deployed to end the protests, the Canadian government would “be setting a dangerous precedent that a small few can have a devastating impact.”
If the impact of a small few is making the government and big business nervous, imagine what a larger mobilization could accomplish! Workers at CN railroad paralyzed Canada’s freight system three months ago during an 8-day strike of 3200 workers. None of their issues have been resolved. CN rail workers have every incentive to reopen their fight and join this one!