Mohawks in Kahnawake defiant as injunctions seek end to rail blockades across Quebec

Mohawk leaders in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, are defying a court order to dismantle a rail barricade they erected just over two weeks ago, and warned authorities against trying to enforce it.

CP says injunction aimed at 'copycat' blockades, hopes for 'peaceful dialogue'

The blockade in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, has been in place in since Feb. 10, disrupting both freight and commuter rail services. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Mohawk leaders in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, are defying a court order to dismantle a rail barricade that supporters of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs erected just over two weeks ago — and warned authorities against trying to enforce it.

Courts in Quebec issued injunctions Tuesday against protesters blocking rail lines in Listuguj, on the Gaspé Peninsula, ​​​​​​in ​Lennoxville, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, as well as in Kahnawake. 

In Lennoxville, a suburb of Sherbrooke, Que., local police arrested 20 people, most of them wearing black masks, as they broke up a blockade erected early Tuesday morning.

In Listuguj, police approached Mi'gmaq protesters who have been camped since Feb. 10 next to a provincially owned rail line that connects the Gaspé with New Brunswick.

Though they refused to leave, the protesters cleaned the tracks as a show of good faith, according to a Radio-Canada reporter on the scene.

On Tuesday afternoon, police closed in on a small group of protesters blockading a CP rail line in Lennoxville, a suburb of Sherbrooke, in Quebec's Eastern Townships. (Radio-Canada)

But in the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, news of the injunction was met with anger and defiance. Cement blocks were added to the road leading to the barricade, and residents showed up to support those on the blockade, bringing supplies such as firewood and coffee.

"First and foremost, we must make it clear to our own people that this injunction will not be executed on this Territory," Kahnawake's elected grand chief Joe Norton said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Norton stressed that neither Quebec provincial police nor the police service operated by Canadian Pacific Railway, which owns the track, are welcome in Kahnawake.

The Kahnawake Peacekeepers, he said, are the "only policing agency with jurisdiction in the Territory." The head of the Peacekeepers, Dwayne Zacharie, has said his force would not carry out a court order against the protesters.

"The Kahnawake Peacekeepers don't have any interest in criminalizing people for standing up for our rights," Zacharie told residents at a public meeting Monday night.

The first barricade went up in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, on Feb. 8, when protesters plowed a large mound of snow onto the CP tracks to show their support for Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia who are opposed to the construction of a liquid natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory.

All train service on the railway, including CP freight service and a daily commuter line, has been suspended since then.

Injunction increases tensions

Until CP sought the injunction on Tuesday, its relations with Kahnawake representatives had been fairly cordial. That changed after the injunction was granted. 

"It is truly unfortunate that CP is taking this rash course of action, which will only add to the problems at hand," Norton said.

On Tuesday afternoon, CP issued a statement saying it has done its best to act "honourably through direct and respectful engagement with Indigenous leaders."

The blockade had reduced Highway 344 to one lane near Oka, Que. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

It said CP chief executive Keith Creel wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week, "expressing CP's support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in their request for direct dialogue with the prime minister." 

"Unfortunately, the blockade at Kahnawake has severed vital rail connections and severely impacted CP's operations, customers and the broader economy. Outside of this blockade other 'copycat' blockades, including some not involving Indigenous peoples, have developed.

CP said it was compelled to take action to get a provincewide injunction to deal with future "copycat" blockades.

"We encourage continued peaceful dialogue between all parties at Kahnawake to resolve this blockade as soon as possible."

'Not a good idea'

While CP's statement suggests it is holding out hope for a negotiated end to that blockade in Kahnawake, Premier François Legault raised the possibility earlier Tuesday that the provincial police would be involved in an operation to take it down, along with Kahnawake's police service, the Mohawk Peacekeepers.

"I trust the Sûreté du Québec to take all steps necessary to act with the Peacekeepers," Legault said at an event in Montreal.

"There is an urgency to re-establish [rail] service. The Quebec economy is losing $100 million daily. There are people suffering."

Mohawks have taken turns manning the blockade of the CP rail line that passes through Kahnawake since Feb. 8. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The disruption has left Quebec with only four days' worth of propane reserves, a government official said in an affidavit filed in support of CP's injunction request.

If those reserves run out, the affidavit said, the province will be unable to provide certain essential health services, and farmers could begin losing livestock.

However, Kenneth Deer, a representative of Kahnawake's traditional Longhouse political system, said there were no plans to take down the barricade. He also said it "was not a good idea" for the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to attempt to intervene. 

"We all remember Oka, and we don't want to have a repeat," Deer told reporters Tuesday, referring to the 1990 standoff which saw Kahnawake Mohawks barricade the Mercier Bridge, a major link to Montreal, for seven weeks, in support of Mohawks embroiled in a land dispute in their sister community of Kanesatake.

That crisis, sparked when an SQ police officer was killed in an attempt to enforce an injunction in Kanesatake, dragged on for 78 days.

A spokesperson for the SQ referred inquiries about the injunction to the Canadian Pacific Railway police service. 

Blockade remains at Kanesatake

Elsewhere in Quebec, protesters continued Tuesday to show their support for the Wet'suwet'en chiefs, as well as for the Mohawk activists arrested at a rail blockade Monday in Ontario.

For a second straight day, Mohawk activists partially blocked the highway running through Kanesatake and Oka, Que., 60 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

"It's not anything aggressive. We're not trying to, you know, fight with anybody," said Kanesatake resident Brigitte Beauvais. 

Members of the Listuguj Mi'gmaq Nation have, for more than two weeks, blocked a regional rail line that runs between Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula and New Brunswick. (Luc Paradis/Radio-Canada)

"We're just showing people that we're in support with B.C. and Tyendinaga, and they're our brothers and sisters. And we're just here to show that we're supporting them."

Julia Lazore, another Kanesatake resident, said this action is part of a larger issue.

"We're going on 30 years since the Oka crisis here, and nothing's changed. We need to support our people. We need to show them that we stand behind them," she said.

"We are peaceful. The only time when we get angry is when we are threatened. When we are threatened, then our warriors will stand up."

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon said Tuesday morning school buses would be delayed due to the blockade, which has reduced Highway 344 to one lane.

"We hope that it doesn't continue too long," he said of the blockade.


With files from Simon Nakonechny, Jessica Deer, Kate McKenna, Sudha Krishnan and Radio-Canada