Aboriginal day of action unfolds peacefully

Despite warnings of blockades, the countrywide aboriginal day of action on Friday unfolded with mostly peaceful gatherings.

While blockades and the threat of blockades snarled railway traffic and prompted the temporary closure of Canada's busiest highway,the countrywide aboriginal day of action on Fridayunfolded with mostly peaceful rallies.

Mohawk activist Shawn Brant smiles at a native elder after police shut down a section of Highway 401 near Deseronto on Friday. ((Tom Hanson/Associated Press))

Native protesters, many singing and beating drums, took to the streets in Vancouver, Regina, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg to draw attention to issues facing Canada's aboriginal communities, including poverty, soaring high-school dropout rates, high suicide rates and unresolved land claims.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine had insisted the day of action should be a peaceful occasion designed to educate the public and raise awareness. He urged aboriginal people and non-aboriginal people not to misinterpret the day as an opportunity to stage violent confrontation and illegal road blockades.

Adissident group of Mohawk activists set up barricades late Thursday in eastern Ontario,on Highway 2 and across a CN Rail line near Deseronto, about 50 kilometres west of Kingston. The barricades came down late Friday, just before midnight.

The move prompted CNto suspend all rail service on the Montreal-Toronto corridor, the third closure due to aboriginal actions in 15 months, CN spokesman Mark Hallman said. The line was to remain closed until police could remove protesters and ensure safe operation, he told CBC News early Friday.

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

OPP officers direct traffic off Highway 401 at the Belleville exit Friday after police closed the highway in order to avoid a confrontation with Bay of Quinte Mohawks near Deseronto. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

Threats of barricades also spurred police, citing safety concerns,to shut down a 29-kilometre stretch of Highway 401 between Belleville and Napanee, Ont. late Thursday before protesters had a chance to block it. The highway is the major road link between Toronto and Montreal.

"This is the first time ever we've shut down the 401, and I don't believe it's going to be the last," Mohawk leader Shawn Brant said shortly after police reached a deal with Mohawk activiststo reopen the highway in eastern Ontario.

"It was certainly a good test run for us."

Traffic began flowing on Highway 401 shortly after 11 a.m. ET, but the barricades on Highway 2 and on the CN railway line remained.

Brantsaid he didn't want to aggravate long-weekend travellers more than necessary by keeping the highway closed throughout Friday.

"We've been able to demonstrate the courage, commitment and resolve of our community members," said Brant, of the Bay of Quinte Mohawks Tyendinaga reserve.

"We don't want people to see this [as] a stepping back: we don't feel that it is."

There were no confrontations between the group led by Brant and police.

Policeissued an arrest warrant early Friday for Brant on a charge of mischief. Hesaid Friday he would turn himself in topolice next week, after enjoying the long weekend.

"I know there are consequences that have to be brought forward and ones that I have to bear … I'm obviously in a position where I've done that in the past and I have to accept responsibility for my actions."

Mohawk activists barricade Highway 2 and the CN Rail line near Deseronto, Ont., on Friday. ((CBC))

Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino said he would take Brant "at his word" that he would surrender, but warned police would have to act if he didn't.

In Ottawa, Fontaineled a march from downtown to Victoria Island. He said he believes there's been progress in settling land claims issues with the government.

"Whether it is because of a perceived threat to blockade or because of the negotiations we've undertaken for more than a year now, relations seemed to have thawed in the last while," he said.

About 100 marchers snaked through Toronto's downtown core Friday morning in one of two events in the city markingthe day of action. The peaceful protest disrupted few commuters.

Montreal's Mercier Bridge also closed for a peaceful march by more than 100 Mohawks, while a separate march in the city's downtown snarled traffic.

Hundreds of aboriginal peoplemarched on downtown streets in Winnipeg,behind traditional drummers in a pickup truck.

Several dozen aboriginal demonstrators and their supporters staged a "traffic slowdown" along the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border Friday to mark the day of action.

With files from the Canadian Press