Blockades and bonfires — Warriors stand with Wet’suwet’en chiefs

Before Trudeau called for an end to national protests, Winnipeg’s Urban Warrior Alliance blockaded Highway 75 in support of community engaged in years-long dispute

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Pipeline actions ramp up

Several people were arrested Monday when Ontario Provincial Police broke up a railway blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in the latest escalation of a conflict that began more than a year ago in British Columbia.

Since January 2019, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and community members have been resisting the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline is part of a $6.6 billion project to bring natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to the coast and has been approved by the provincial and federal governments. Five elected Wet’suwet’en band councils are also in support.

But the hereditary chiefs have consistently opposed the construction and set up blockades to stop work from going forward in the winter of 2019. The project has also been panned by B.C.’s human rights commission and the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination.

A report published by the Guardian late last year said authorities were prepared to use lethal force against the land defenders.

After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) moved to act on an injunction requiring the Wet’suwet’en to stand down earlier this year, solidarity demonstrations and blockades popped up around the country, including the Tyendinaga action that began over two weeks ago. In Manitoba, demonstrators have shut down Portage Avenue several times — including twice in front of the Manitoba RCMP headquarters and a rush hour rally that saw some 400 people shut down the Portage and Main intersection.

A blockade of the CN and Via Rail tracks near Headingly, Man., lasted less than 24 hours before a CN injunction was quickly approved by the courts. On Feb. 17, members of the Urban Warrior Alliance blockaded Highway 75 for several hours. Following Monday’s arrests, another series of solidarity actions sprang up, including blockades of commuter rail lines in Ontario and the second rally outside Manitoba’s Mountie headquarters. 

Manitoban columnist Cam Cannon attended the Feb. 17 highway blockade and filed the following report.

The air is rich with the smoke of a nearby bonfire.

Indigenous warriors and land defenders, clad in camouflage, are holding an emergency meeting in a large black pickup truck parked on the side of Highway 75, where a blockade of both the CN railway and the southbound lanes of the highway has been set up.

All traffic is being allowed through at the moment — everybody around the fire is in disbelief at what just happened.

Moments earlier, as Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) liaison officers dressed in plain clothes visited the blockade — informing the land defenders that the officers were there not only to protect the public, but to protect the land defenders as well — a large tractor trailer pushed through the blockade, swerving through at speed as land defenders scrambled to stop the driver.

The truck sped away, followed shortly after by an RCMP vehicle.

A land defender’s arm was “jarred” during the incident, according to Harrison Powder, a land defender with the Urban Warrior Alliance — one of Winnipeg’s warrior societies, an organization of Indigenous militants.

Land defenders completely stop all traffic in retaliation — including passenger vehicles, which earlier in the day had been allowed through while only commercial trucks were being held up.

They hold the line for about 10 more minutes before holding an emergency meeting away from their allies and the media.

The truck breaking through the blockade was only one of three separate incidents of what Black Turtle, a warrior with the Urban Warrior Alliance, described as “violence” against the land defenders during the day, including an individual who exited his vehicle to confront blockaders.

“That’s never happened before,” she said, comparing the incident to previous demonstrations.

“It’s like the temperament in some of the people has gotten a lot worse than it used to be. The anger level is higher, I guess the stakes are higher.”

“In eight years of protesting — like real heavy protesting as a land defender, doing lots of other kinds of protests, blocking highways, rail lines — this has maybe happened maybe once and today we’ve had three incidents of violence on this highway,” she said.

Overall, the attitude toward the blockade from drivers can be described as tense. People could be heard yelling obscenities from their cars with some regularity, though a few dropped off snacks as they passed through.

The blockade — established as part of a wave of ongoing peaceful protests in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en and Mohawk nations — was established at noon.

The RCMP were on the scene minutes later and maintained a presence for the rest of the day. Within a few hours, a court injunction was served to land defenders by RCMP officers — which they promptly threw to the wind.

“I’m kind of surprised how fast it was, it seems a little not normal,” said Powder, noting it has taken up to eight hours to be served with an injunction at previous protests.

“They’ve been getting these injunctions now in a matter of three, four hours,” he said.

“Once a blockade is going up across Canada — because it happened in Toronto, too — they had a blockade and were served within four, five hours.”

The blockade came down after 5 p.m. Amidst rising tensions over the blockades that have shuttered parts of the Canadian economy, there has been increased pressure from both the police and civilians to take down the blockades.

Although some injunctions had gone unenforced for weeks before this weekend, a blockade just south of Montreal, Que., was dismantled on Feb. 21 upon the arrival of police in riot gear.

At a press conference the same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that RCMP were scaling back from Wet’suwet’en and called for all the blockades across the country, now in their third week, to come down and for the rule of law to be upheld.

A few days prior, on Feb. 19, counter-protesters — among them, members of far-right groups and movements including Yellow Vests Canada, United We Roll and Wexit, according to Yellow Vests Canada Exposed, a group that monitors the far right in Canada — dismantled a blockade outside of Edmonton, Alta.

The vigilante action was met with support on Twitter in a now-deleted tweet from Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Peter MacKay.

With rising antagonism from both the Canadian government and from Canadians themselves, Black Turtle — who said she attended the blockade out of love and a want to see reconciliation between the country and the Indigenous populations — questioned how far away that may still be.

“I think that we’re the furthest from reconciliation at this point in time than we’ve been in for a very long time,” she said.

“I think it was starting to come into that direction until this last situation occurred. I’d say that reconciliation is dead at this point.”

“It is completely dead.”