British Columbia

CN won't pursue contempt charges over Gitxsan rail blockade in northern B.C.

Canadian National Railway says it will not be pursuing contempt charges against a dozen people, including three hereditary chiefs who were arrested for blocking a major rail line in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northwestern B.C. in February 2020.

Hereditary chiefs and supporters blocked CN's main line in support of Wet'suwet'en pipeline opponents in 2020

RCMP moved in to arrest people blockading the CN Rail main line on Gitxsan territory in northwestern B.C. in late February 2020. (Dinize Ste ohn tsiy (Rob)/Twitter)

Canadian National Railway says it will not be pursuing contempt charges against a dozen people, including three hereditary chiefs who were arrested for blocking a major rail line in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en opponents of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northwestern B.C. in February 2020.

Martin Peters, the lawyer for the defendants, almost all of them members of the Gitxsan nation, welcomes the news but said important issues of Aboriginal title have still not been addressed.

The protest on the train tracks on Gitxsan territory near New Hazelton was part of a movement of more than 30 rail blockades that swept the country in February of 2020 halting freight and passenger traffic in many parts of the country.

The rail line protests were launched after RCMP arrested people blocking access to Coastal GasLink's pipeline construction on Wetsuwet'en traditional territory near Houston, B.C.

On Feb. 24 of that year, RCMP moved in to arrest people on the CN tracks near New Hazelton, about 130 kilometres away.  RCMP said the participants were breaching  a court injunction against  "trespassing, obstructing, and any related intimidation" along CN's north line. 

CN stated that a similar action in the same spot earlier in February, when protesters blocked trains with lawn chairs, tents, and pallets, affected nearly 5,000 freight cars that were stranded at the Port of Prince Rupert and backed up rail traffic as far east as Winnipeg. 

In a written statement at the time, the RCMP said the arrests were at the request of the CN Police Service because people "refused to leave CN Rail's private property."

A four-day rail blockade by Gitxsan hereditary chiefs near New Hazelton in early February 2020 was dismantled after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan agreed to set up a high level meeting between the chiefs and officials. (Photo by Lillian Granley)

A reporter was also arrested at the scene, but was later exempted from court proceedings. For the rest of the blockaders, the matter has been before the courts for almost two years.

Last year, the B.C. Prosecution Service declined to approve criminal charges, stating it was not in the public interest.

That left the matter up to CN to proceed with civil or criminal contempt of court charges against the protesters. 

In a letter this week, CN's lawyer said it had decided against it.

CN Rail says rail blockades in Hazelton in February 2020 affected nearly 5,000 freight cars. (Dan Mesec)

But Peters said fundamental issues have yet to be addressed, including "the assertion of Aboriginal title."

The lawyer said the blockade was set up, not only  in support of Wet'suwet'en pipeline opponents, but also to assert land rights over Gitxsan territory.

"There has been a rail line going through the middle of Gitxsan territory for 114 years without any question concerning compensation or the fact this is native land," he said.

Despite the rail protests and years of Wet'suwet'en anti-pipeline blockades, construction on the controversial 670 kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline is more than 60 per cent complete.

The project has signed deals with 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route, including in Wet'suwet'en territory but has not won the approval of the majority of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.

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