Toronto has became the new battleground for protesters of the Coastal GasLink project in Western Canada, with hundreds of demonstrators occupying train lands and disrupting the evening commute.
As many as eight arrests were made at the Dundas and Jane Street rail lands after a blockade took over the tracks, a major rail artery through Canada’s largest city. Supporters shouted “shame” as police made the arrests. “LAND BACK!” read one sign protesters stretched between two rail lines.
“I’m going to stay here until they remove me or until we’re free,” said a defiant Olivia Coombe, who sat, wrapped in a blanket, a few metres from the tracks, with dozens of other protesters amid a heavy police presence.
Across the country, protesters of the Coastal GasLink project are digging in, mounting blockades that appear suddenly, and in some cases dissipate quickly. Protesters are vowing to fight on despite police action to enforce trespassing laws. Small blockades aimed at stifling Canadian rail transport occurred in other parts of Ontario and in Quebec.
Meanwhile, talks aimed at cooling the tension continue — with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in B.C. and the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs discussing a satellite detachment (trailers housing police equipment and offices) that the chiefs want removed. While those talks continue, protesters across the country have taken to the rail lines. The hereditary chiefs claim control over lands the pipeline would have to cross.
Tuesday, Toronto and GTA rail lines were hit with temporary blockades during the afternoon and evening commute with protests stopping GO Train service and regular rail traffic. Union Station in Toronto was jammed with frustrated commuters. Metrolinx warned of disruptions “throughout our entire system.” Regular service resumed in the early evening but not before thousands of passengers were delayed.
If the protests continue until Wednesday, rail officials and protesters will also have to contend with an approaching snowstorm created by a low pressure zone in Texas that threatens to further disrupt the afternoon and evening commute.
Delays on GO Transit began Monday afternoon when a Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockade went up in Hamilton. The disruption along what the commuter service describes as its busiest route left thousands of passengers scrambling to make alternative travel arrangements. Hamilton police said protesters left the blockade site peacefully at around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
As that blockade was being dismantled two other blockades were springing up in locations in Toronto. Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said there had been reports of disruptions at Kipling station on the Milton line, as well as at Guildwood on Lakeshore East.
GO warned of severe crowding at Union Station as a result. Frustrating matters was that attendants who were trying to help passengers didn’t have the latest accurate information. Commuters who spoke to the Star didn’t share frustrations with the protesters. Instead they focused their anger on Metrolinx employees who couldn’t help them.
Metrolinx tweeted at around 4:45 p.m. that the situation at Guildwood had been cleared and normal service was resuming. At about 6:30 p.m., the first train to Milton finally departed Union after a two-hour delay but it was using a diversion.
Aikins called Tuesday’s disruption “unprecedented.” Metrolinx said they expect GO transit will be back to normal for Wednesday’s commute, though they anticipated some delays on the Milton line.
Aikins said the agency had been preparing for potential disruptions in the wake of protests across the country in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en chiefs.
“We have an emergency preparedness plan that we have put in effect,” she said. “The first priority we have is to make sure everybody stays safe, so everybody has been working round the clock, especially the last 48 hours.”
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The flashpoint that appears to have led to the Toronto blockade came Monday when the Ontario Provincial Police made arrests of 10 Mohawk activists near Marysville, Ont. The OPP enforced a court injunction against a protest camp that had blocked one of Canada’s key rail lines since Feb. 6. Canadian National and Via Rail had temporarily laid off 1,500 workers as a result.
What watchers say may become a rotating series of protests across the country — “don’t expect anything to stop,” said one activist — is a show of solidarity for hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs who are opposing construction of a pipeline over B.C. land they say they hold dominion over.
According to the project website, the $6.2 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline is designed to “safely deliver natural gas across northern B.C.” A total of 670 kilometres in length, it aims to deliver natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, where it will be prepared for “export to global markets by converting the gas to a liquefied state.”
While Coastal GasLink announced in 2018 the signing of agreements with 20 First Nation Band councils along the route — including Wet’suwet’en Nation — the project is being opposed by the hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs, who say the land in question was never part of a treaty. The hereditary chiefs have said it cannot proceed without their consent. Wet’suwet’en officials issued an “eviction notice” to Coastal GasLink on Jan. 4, and the RCMP moved into the area shortly after, sparking protests across the country and debates in Ottawa.
There has been an ebb and flow to the nature of the protests. Tuesday afternoon, rumours spread in the city that a protest would be set up — somewhere — in the city at 4 p.m. Right on the dot of 4 p.m., on rail tracks near Jane and Dundas Streets, activists, hand in hand, formed a circular blockade to stop train traffic. Toronto Police warned those present they would be charged and face fines of $5,000 or more if they did not leave. Protesters played soft music and lit a fire to keep warm. As the evening wore on, eight arrests were made (police would not confirm the number) and the protesters moved off the rail lines and kept an uneasy vigil, facing police.
Crystal Sinclair of the Idle No More protest movement told the Star she had come to the Jane and Dundas rail lands to support other Indigenous people across the country who are voicing their concerns about land ownership.
“This is about making a statement. Indigenous sovereignty is not being respected,” she said as the crowd of protesters grew larger in the evening.
“They have to start paying attention, get off our land because injustice to one is injustice to all.”
At about 10 p.m., between 20 and 30 protesters remained on the tracks surrounded by police. A short distance away, roughly a hundred protesters huddled around the fence that closes off the rail line, chanting, holding signs and raising their fists.
There were some tense moments amid a heavy police presence, but also periods of calm, with protesters sharing boxes of pizza that had been delivered to the scene.
Tuesday, the day after the arrests in Marysville of 10 activists, dawned with a strong police presence in the area, as a means to keep protesters away from the CN rail tracks they had occupied for more than two weeks.
David Milne, of Belleville, who visited the Wyman Road encampment in Marysville Tuesday, in support of the protesters, described himself as a settler who empathizes with the plight of First Nations people.
“I want a resolution that they (First Nations) feel is just and that they can live with long-term,” Milne said, standing near the entrance to the encampment. “We’re also opposed to the use of violence to remove these people from demonstrating.”
He said legions of officers moving in to quash a demonstration on Indigenous land is just a microcosm of the larger neglect of First Nation rights.
“I have trouble with that,” said Milne, of the arrests the day before. “That’s just a symptom of what’s wrong.”
Milne, who was allowed to enter the encampment to meet with the small group of protesters still at the site, said he was acting on the behalf of global faith-based group Christian Peacemaker Teams.
“We’re here as human rights observers,” he said. “We got their permission.”
While Milne struggled to propose any solutions, his colleague, Robert Holmes said the RCMP must pull out of Wet’suwet’en territory before any meaningful dialogue can happen.
“We have to recognize the sovereignty of the Wet’suwet’en,” Holmes said. “The immediate solution is: RCMP out, the pipeline people out, and we sit down and negotiate.”
At the break of dawn, Tuesday, no one was manning the makeshift gate, guarded Monday by a man who prevented media from entering the Mohawk encampment. A pile of wood sat near the gate made of wooden skids, while several Mohawk flags mounted on the gate blew in the wind. A few cars sit idling, while two men sat next to a fire. Two women sorted food items — cupcakes, doughnuts, muffin and Tim Hortons coffee containers — sitting on two tables inside the Mohawk encampment.