Tensions soar in Pukatawagan over move to buy rail line

Some residents in a remote Manitoba community faced off against their chief and council, leading to a hunger strike by some elders and the RCMP being called in to defuse a heated confrontation.

Elders protesting several issues in community, such as housing, policing, child welfare, education

Protesters gather around a sacred fire inside the teepee where they held a sit-in and hunger strike. (Courtesy Selena Castel)

Mathias Colomb First Nation's plans to buy the Port of Churchill and Hudson Bay Rail Line have become a source of controversy in the remote northern Manitoba community.

Chief Arlen Dumas's plans were challenged by elders who held a hunger strike last week. An assault charge was laid against one of the hunger strikers' supporters, who was arrested as the protest began.

The group of five older women in Mathias Colomb, also called Pukatawagan, fasted from Jan. 19 to 21 to protest what some community members say is a lack of information about the planned purchase from Omnitrax, a Denver-based firm. The Hudson Bay Rail Line doesn't run through Pukatawagan, but Mathias Colomb is one of three First Nations that own and operate the Keewatin Railway Co., which runs a rail line from Pukatawagan to The Pas.

John Colomb was charged with assaulting the chief, uttering threats and causing a public disturbance after tensions boiled up while the elders prepared to fast, both Dumas and Colomb admit.

The disagreement in the northern community came to a head at a meeting Jan. 13, where residents discussed plans to buy the port and railway.

"Our community wanted more information, more consultation," said Shirley Castel, a Mathias Colomb First Nation band councillor.

Dumas said at the meeting that he would proceed with the purchase, and while some supported his plan, others felt it shouldn't go ahead, Castel said. Before an agreement is signed with Omnitrax, they want proof of consultation with communities along the line, acknowledgement of any environmental impacts and a plan showing how it will benefit people of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.

Charges laid after confrontation

Flora Jane Castel, one of the community's elders, decided to protest with a hunger strike with four other women. Shirley Castel fasted with them and recorded their concerns.

Colomb set up a teepee for the women in front of the band office, where he prepared to light a sacred fire.

First the fire chief and then the band chief tried to stop him, Colomb said. The resulting confrontation between Colomb and the chief ended with charges being laid against Colomb.

Colomb said he got upset when the chief tried to stop him. Colomb started clenching and unclenching his fist as he argued that the women had a right to protest, he said.

The chief phoned the RCMP, who arrested Colomb and charged him with assault, uttering threats and causing a public disturbance.

Dumas said Colomb threatened him, but didn't hit him. He's not sure why RCMP laid the assault charge, he said.

Chief met elders

The hunger strike ended Thursday evening after Dumas agreed to meet with the elders the next day.

Dumas said the elders' concerns at that meeting weren't just about the purchase of the port and rail line — they touched on the community's housing shortage, band funds, education and policing.

"It's a symptom of the reality of our experience in the north. We're chronically underfunded," Dumas said.

Many in the community support the purchase of Omnitrax, he said, and he plans to release a report on the deal to his members in the coming weeks.

"We need to see tangible things happen. This Omnitrax is one of those things, where we have the opportunity to bolster the employment of community members and access opportunities that aren't available to us today," said Dumas.

Colomb said community members keep asking him about the confrontation but he doesn't regret his role in the protest.

"I never did anything wrong. I only tried to help my people that are in need of my help," he said.

"We need answers. That's the most important thing we would like from the chief and council, and we need help."