Via Rail cancels most trains nationwide, CN closes Eastern Canadian network as Indigenous protests continue

New Person

  • CN Rail and Via Rail are shutting down huge sections of their railway networks as Indigenous blockades continue to cripple the country's transportation systems.

    Via Rail is temporarily ending most passenger services nationwide, expanding an earlier work stoppage that restricted train cancellations to the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor.

    "Via Rail has no other option but to cancel all of its services on the network, with the exception of Sudbury-White River (CP Rail) and Churchill-The Pas (Hudson Bay Railway), until further notice," the rail operator said in a media statement.

    The company said it would automatically process full refunds for all cancelled trips.

    "You do not need to contact Via Rail to confirm the refund, but note that due to the volume of transactions it may take up to 15 days to receive," the Crown corporation said. "We understand the impact this unfortunate situation has on our passengers and regret the significant inconvenience this is causing to their travel."

    Via Rail has temporarily suspended all trains nationwide because of ongoing Indigenous protests. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
    CN Rail, the country's largest railway, is "initiating a progressive and orderly shutdown of its Eastern Canadian network" because Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters near Belleville, Ont. have so far refused to dismantle their blockade.

    The railway operator said the shutdown, which will affect the entire network east of Toronto, may result in temporary layoffs of CN workers.

    Via Rail trains run on CN tracks in most parts of the country, a vestige of a time when CN ran its own passenger trains.

    'The situation is regrettable'
    "With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protestors," J.J. Ruest, the president and CEO of CN, said in a media statement.

    "This situation is regrettable ... these protests are unrelated to CN's activities and beyond our control. Our shutdown will be progressive and methodical to ensure that we are well set up for recovery, which will come when the illegal blockades end completely."

    Last weekend, CN Rail obtained a court injunction to end the illegal Mohawk demonstration. The injunction has been ignored by the protesters. Activists also ignored a request from the on-reserve Tyendinaga Police for them to voluntarily dismantle the blockade.

    Pipeline project divides Wet'suwet'en people
    • 10 hours ago
    • 2:08
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    History and internal politics play a role in the internal division over the Coastal GasLink pipeline among the Wet'suwet'en people. 2:08
    The injunction forbids any continued interference with the rail line under the threat of arrest. The Ontario Provincial Police has not yet enforced the injunction.

    The federal government, which has jurisdictional authority over railways, has so far refused to intervene. Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has agreed to meet with the Mohawks on Saturday.

    Transport Minister Marc Garneau said he plans to meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts Friday, adding he is in contact with CN and CP.

    In a statement Thursday, Garneau said "freedom of expression" is an important democratic right, but added, "these activities must respect the court decisions and the law."

    The Mohawk activists have said they won't end their demonstration until the RCMP leaves the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en in northern B.C. Wet'suwet'en hereditary leaders had been blocking road access to a construction site for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a key part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project.

    While much of the police action near that road ended Tuesday with multiple arrests, the RCMP still has officers stationed near the pipeline construction site.

    Train tracks have been blocked near New Hazelton, B.C. since Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Lillian Granley)
    A separate rail blockade on CN tracks near New Hazelton, B.C. was set to end today after Gitxsan hereditary chiefs agreed to end protests designed to show solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en.

    Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her provincial counterpart will hold talks with both the Gitxsan and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in the coming days.

    A prolonged shutdown could have devastating consequences for the country's economy. CN moves more than $250 billion a year in goods across its transcontinental network.

    The shutdown threatens the transport of food and consumer items, grain, de-icing fluid for airports, construction materials, propane supplies for Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and natural resources like lumber, aluminum and coal, the railway said.

    The Canadian Chamber of Commerce urged the federal and provincial governments and the police to immediately end the transport chaos and help CN restore rail service.

    "From propane to grain and food and consumer items, Canada's supply chains are being severely damaged by the continuing interruptions to Canada's rail services by protestors," the organization said in a statement.

    "The rail system affects the entire Canadian economy and Canadians everywhere, including people trying to get to and from work. They must be allowed to continue to serve the thousands of businesses that depend on them."

    'What happened to the rule of law?'
    Bob Masterson, president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said this shutdown could be devastating.

    "It's a critical situation. It's an extremely dire situation for the economy and, in the coming days, for communities across the country," he told CBC's Power & Politics.

    He said 80 per cent of his industry's products, such as jet fuel for planes and chlorine for drinking water, are shipped by rail.

    Masterson said the provincial police need to enforce the court-ordered injunction and clear out the Mohawk protesters.

    "Everyone has the right to protest ... but the courts have said, 'You've gone too far, it's no longer in the public interest,'" he said. "The actions are illegal, this is trespassing. What happened to the rule of law in Canada?"

    New Person

    Why 2 different kinds of Wet'suwet'en leaders support and oppose the gas pipeline

    Anti-pipeline protesters from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory just east of Belleville, Ont., continue their blockade that has forced CN Rail to shut down its network east of Toronto. Protesters say the blockade is in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project which would partially run through their traditional territory.

    Does that mean, however, that all the Wet'suwet'en people oppose the pipeline?

    In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Andrew Scheer stressed that his Conservative Party stands in support of the project "with the elected councillors of the Wet'suwet'en" Nation and that "the vast majority of of the Wet'suwet'en people" also approve of the pipeline.

    But it's not as clear-cut as Scheer suggests. We answer some of the questions at the root of the dispute.

    Who along the route supports the project?
    The $6 billion, 670-kilometre pipeline will deliver natural gas from the Dawson Creek area in northern B.C., heading west near Vanderhoof to a liquefaction facility in Kitimat. It's part of a $40-billion LNG Canada project.

    In September 2018, Coastal GasLink announced that it had signed community and project agreements (also known as benefit agreements) with 20 First Nations band councils along the route of the pipeline. The band councils included those from the Wet'suwet'en Nation.

    Who is opposed?
    Opposition to the pipeline is being mounted by the majority of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. The clan chiefs have said that despite the agreements signed by the nation's band councils, the project needs the chiefs' authorization to proceed.

    Protesters gather at the rail blockade on the 11th day of demonstrations on Sunday, near Belleville, Ont. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)
    They say the band councils are responsible for only the territory within their individual reserves, which were created through the Indian Act. But the hereditary chiefs say they are following Wet'suwet'en law, laws that predate colonization and the Indian Act, meaning they assert authority over the broader 22,000 square kilometres of traditional territory that the pipeline would cross.

    "They are following law, which says to them that they need to protect the lands with which they have a sacred connection, which is a much larger piece of territories than the band chiefs are responsible for," said Kim Stanton, a Toronto-based lawyer who practices Aboriginal law.

    Do most Wet'suwet'en people back the project?
    It's difficult to determine how many of the more than 3,000 members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation approve of the pipeline project. But it has certainly garnered the support of the elected leadership.

    Five of six band councils that govern the member nations that make up Wet'suwet'en Nation are among the 20 First Nations band councils to reach benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink. Those five councils represent: Skin Tyee First Nation, Wet'suwet'en First Nation, Witset First Nation, Nee Tahi Buhn Band and Burns Lake Band.

    Bonnie Georgie, a member of the Witset First Nation and a former Coastal GasLink employee, told CBC Radio's As it Happens this month that while some people attended meetings and were very vocal in their opposition, "there's quite a bit of support for this project."

    However a sixth band council of Wet'suwet'en nation — the Hagwilget Nation Village Council — did not sign an agreement with Coastal GasLink.

    Brian Michell, one of their elected councillors, told The Canadian Press last year that the village council never got as far as hearing a dollar figure because they refused to entertain the idea of an agreement.

    What about other First Nations with agreements?
    There's likely varying degrees of support. In January, Chief Coun. Crystal Smith of the Haisla Nation in Kitimat told The Canadian Press that the project will help the community become less reliant on federal funding by creating jobs for Indigenous people and lifting communities from poverty.

    But Nak'azdli Whut'en Chief Alex McKinnon said signing an agreement with Coastal GasLink was one of the most difficult decisions he's ever made.

    Stanton, the lawyer, said bands are forced to make very difficult choices about whether to make deals with resource extraction companies. Indian Act bands have been chronically underfunded and under-resourced, she said.

    "I think you can say that people are trying their best to do what they can for their people under very difficult circumstances. And when a resource extraction company comes along and says, 'Look, we have all of this money for you,' they are loath not to take it."

    "They're in between a rock and a hard place. I don't think it's a measure of unqualified support."

    What's in the agreements?
    Coastal GasLink has said they won't comment on the benefit agreements since they are supposed to be confidential between the company and each First Nation. And so, those details have mostly been kept from the public.

    Protestors across Canada say they support Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project which would partially run through their traditional territory. (CBC)
    However, last year, CBC's Chantelle Bellrichard reported on a leaked benefits agreement with Nak'azdli Whut'en. The agreement included education and training benefits, contracting and employment opportunities, annual legacy payments over the lifetime of the pipeline, and "general project payments" to be made in three instalments.

    However, one condition sparked criticism — that the band will "take all reasonable actions" to dissuade its members from doing anything that could "impede, hinder, frustrate, delay, stop or interfere with the project, the project's contractors, any authorizations or any approval process."

    That included dissuading band members from taking part "in any media or social media campaign."

    Has B.C. made separate agreements with First Nations?
    Yes. According to the province's website, British Columbia has signed natural gas benefit agreements with First Nations along the Coastal GasLink pipeline route. In all, there are 15 agreements signed. And details of those agreements are public.

    For example, the agreement between the province and Stellat'en First Nation stipulates the B.C. government will provide $2.53 million in exchange for allowing the pipeline on Stellat'en territory.

    New Person

    Via Rail issues temporary layoffs to nearly 1,000 workers as blockades continue

    Via Rail says it will be temporarily laying off up to 1,000 people as rail blockades in B.C. and Ontario have brought the passenger rail services network to a virtual standstill.

    Some Indigenous protesters and sympathizers have shut down a key rail line in northern B.C. because they oppose the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on the grounds that it would run through the hereditary land of the Wet'suwet'en people.

    Another group has blockaded another key rail line near Belleville, Ont., in solidarity with the B.C. protest. Other stoppages have happened near Montreal and Edmonton.

    Those rail shutdowns have drastically reduced Via's ability to continue its service, so the network has been stripped down to a shadow of its former self while the protests go on.

    As of Tuesday, Via said the rail blockades have led to the cancellation of 532 regularly scheduled passenger trains.

    The carrier got permission from CN Rail to resume partial service on its Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa corridor, but cancelled that plan late Wednesday, saying service would not resume between Quebec City and Montreal before at least Saturday. Via said it would contact passengers who were scheduled on those trains.

    Via did say it would resume regular service Thursday in southwestern Ontario between Toronto, Sarnia, Windsor, London and Niagara Falls, and partial service Thursday between Montreal and Ottawa. But network-wide, the system is running at well under its usual capacity.

    "It is with sincere regret that we must proceed with temporary employee suspensions," Via said in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday. "Starting today, close to 1,000 Via Rail employees will receive a notice regarding this matter."

    It's the first time in Via's 42-year history that the carrier has had to interrupt most of its passenger service across the country, the company said.

    New Person

    Send in the army? Why one expert says that would be a 'ludicrous' response to rail blockades

    Over seven years ago, two books written by retired lieutenant-colonel Douglas Bland offered some sobering warnings about the future of the Crown-Indigenous relationship — warnings that seem eerily prescient after the events of the past two weeks.

    One book, Uprising, was a work of fiction — a well-researched tale of insurrection among impoverished young Aboriginal people rallying to a call to "take back the land."

    The second book (non-fiction) was more chilling. In factual, stripped-down prose, Bland chronicled how Canada's Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations were on a catastrophic collision course — a reckoning long in the making that would lead to social upheaval.

    That book, Time Bomb: Canada and the First Nations, described how the peaceful Idle No More movement had the potential to morph into something far more menacing — something that could exploit the country's vulnerability to blockades by barricading the east-west freight routes that stitch the nation together.

    Canada's transportation network was at the time — and remains today — an easy target for aspiring insurgents and activists.

    They know if they decided to block down railways for a long time, or if they use weapons of any kind, in any strength, that the army and the Mounties and everybody would be down their throats.- Author Douglas Bland
    Although Bland has deep respect for Indigenous culture and aspirations, in his books the former chair of defence management studies at Queen University examines a looming crisis through the lens of the military and national security.

    The Liberal government has insisted that the recent blockades — which have paralyzed rail traffic across the country, leading to layoffs and industrial slowdowns — can only be resolved through patient and peaceful dialogue.

    That argument is wearing thin with the government's opponents. Aspiring Conservative leadership candidate Marilyn Gladu said the military should be sent in to break up the blockades "if the RCMP can't handle it."

    A 'last resort'
    Derek Burney, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, declared in a recent National Post article that "enough is enough" and the current government should "empower all federal law enforcement agencies, and if necessary the military, to uphold the rule of law."

    Calls to send in the army, particularly at this stage, are "ludicrous," said Bland, who added he believes that kind of solution is "way beyond anything we need to do now, or in the future."

    The military is — and should be — the federal response "of last resort," he said.

    The army's mission is to fight foreign enemies and terrorists, not Canada's own citizens. Treating the blockades like a full-blown insurrection would not only be perilous, said Bland — it would ignore the real nature of the Crown-Indigenous relationship.

    "There is nothing so dangerous that you have to send (the army) in," he said.

    Seven years ago, Bland said, he would have estimated the probability of an actual Indigenous uprising much higher than he does today — simply because governments have finally acknowledged Indigenous Canadians' real grievances and have made attempts, however imperfect, at reconciliation.

    An overwhelming number of First Nations leaders and their people appear to be behind the federal government in its push for a negotiated end to the current crisis. A military response, Bland said, would destroy that goodwill while setting back the growing rapprochement with Aboriginal communities.

    Political aims, political options
    The aim of the current wave of protests is political, said Bland, and it's not likely the activists want (or are prepared) to escalate the confrontation into an armed conflict.

    "They know if they decided to block down railways for a long time, or if they use weapons of any kind, in any strength, that the army and the Mounties and everybody would be down their throats," he said.

    "They're not interested in getting into a war with Canada. What they want to do, like a lot of other people, is put enough pressure on the government so that the government recognizes their claims and demands."

    An unidentified Mohawk woman clutches her child in one arm and a soldier's wrist in the other hand on Highway 344 during the 1990 Oka crisis. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
    Joseph Norton, the grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said this week that it would be easy for the Crown to dispatch the military to "do its bidding." But the people in his community lived through the Oka Crisis in 1990, which didn't end until after a police officer was killed.

    "Nobody wants to see that again," said Norton.

    Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller recently raised the spectre of that two-and-a-month standoff near Montreal. Thirty years ago, Miller told the House of Commons, he was a young army reservist serving alongside "four Mohawk brothers." When the unit was ordered to Oka, the four Mohawk brothers left their unit.

    "They were asked to make a difficult choice ... between the country that they would lay down their life for and their families. For them, the choice was clear," Miller said

    Like Miller, many of the current crop of Canadian military leaders were junior officers at the time of Oka and remember what a divisive, dangerous time it was. Bland said he would be shocked if a chief of the defence staff ordered soldiers into an Indigenous community to put down a protest.

    "Some of the officers would quit before they did that."