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A masked protester from the Bay of Quinte Mohawks Tyendinaga reserve stands by a bonfire at the blockade on Highway 2 near Deseronto, Ont., on Thursday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Armed Mohawk protesters got an early start to the Canada-wide aboriginal day of action on Friday, barricading a major rail line and a highway in eastern Ontario.

The protesters' swift action caused police to shut down a one kilometre stretch of Highway 401, the majorroad link betweenToronto and Montreal,at midnight, fearing protesters would move to that portion of theroad.

The highway was closed to all traffic between the towns of Maryville and Shannonville, which are about 60 kilometres west of Kingston.

"The highway was closed as a safety measure," said Christine Rae, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Provincial Police.

Trafficwas being re-routed, and police could not anticipate when the highway would reopen.

The protesters set up their first barricade at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday,three hours before the day of action officially began, parking a schoolbus on Highway 2, a secondary route near Deseronto, and lighting a bonfire nearby.

The protesters, many wearing masks and army fatigues, sang and beat drums on the road.

The Highway 2 barricade forced traffic to stop and turn around at the location — which is about 50 kilometres west of Kingston — and least one motorist engaged in a screaming match with protesters before leaving the site.

A short time later,protesters set up a second blockade on the nearby CN Rail line, using jumper cables to activate crossing barriers before moving a schoolbus onto the tracks.

Protest leader Shawn Brant said the first Highway 2 blockadewas just a "soft target," in anticipation of more blockades on Highway 401, between Montreal and Toronto, and the rail line between the two cities.

"We want the government to know, and the rest of this country, that we're prepared to make commitments and sacrifices to ensure a safe, healthy environment in which our children can live," he said.

The Assembly of First Nations designated Friday as a National Day of Action to draw attention to the issues facing Canada's aboriginal communities, including poverty, soaring high school dropout rates, high suicide rates and unresolved land claims.

'No secret that we have guns'

Brant said his protesters are ready to keep up their blockades until midnight Friday and have stockpiled food and water, and have trucks, tree trunks and wooden pallets ready to build more barricades.

"We've made no secret that we have guns within this camp,"Brant told the Canadian Press.

"It's our intent to go out and ensure a safe day. Unfortunately, previous incidents have shown that aggressive tactics by the police need to be met with equal resistance by the people they'rebringing those against."

Brant cited the 1995 death of protester Dudley George in Ipperwash Provincial Park as one tragic example where police and aboriginal protesters clashed.

Dozens of Ontario Provincial Police cruisers gathered in the nearby town of Napanee on Thursday as the first blockade wasbeing set up.

OPP issues warning to Brant

Earlier Thursday, Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantinotold reportersin Toronto that the force would be dispatching extra officers to ensure the protests had a "peaceful outcome."

He issued a direct warning to Brant, who this spring led a quarry occupation and a 30-hour CN Rail blockade to protest an ongoing land dispute the Mohawks have with the federal government.

"We're prepared to discuss things with Mr. Brant, as we have done before," Fantino said. "But at the end of the day, there is accountability for one's actions as well, and he will be held accountable."

Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine has insisted the National Day of Action should be a peaceful occasion designed to educate the public and raise awareness.

On Thursday, he urged aboriginal peopleand non-aboriginal people not to misinterpret the national day of action as an occasion for violent confrontation and illegal road blockades.

That didn't stop some native groups from planning protests, including the Mi'kmaq Nation, which has threatened to block Highway 104 on the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border.

In anticipation of Ontario blockades, Via Rail cancelled all Friday train services between Toronto and Montreal and between Toronto and Ottawa.

With files from the Canadian Press