Montreal·Analysis

By seeking injunction to end rail blockades, Quebec premier accepts it's not just Ottawa's problem

Since First Nations activists began blockading rail lines across the country nearly three weeks ago, Quebec Premier François Legault has not had to make many difficult decisions. That could be about to change.

Legault will have to think carefully about how police can avoid escalating the conflict

Mohawks continued reinforcing a barricade at the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in Kahnawake Wednesday, the day after CP obtained a court injunction to end all blockades of its lines in Quebec. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Since First Nations activists began blockading rail lines across the country nearly three weeks ago, Quebec Premier François Legault hasn't had to make many difficult decisions on the topic.

Like many of his counterparts in other provinces, Legault has been content to lay the responsibility for resolving the conflict on the federal government.

After all, the two ongoing blockades in Quebec — by Mohawks in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, and by Mi'gmaq in Listuguj on the Gaspe Peninsula — went up in response to events occurring on the other side of the country.

At first, Legault said it's up to Ottawa to sort out the conflict between proponents of a natural gas pipeline project in British Columbia and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who don't want it running through their traditional territory.

Legault has expressed his impatience with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the situation in no uncertain terms. Last week, he called on the Trudeau government to find a solution "in the coming days," complaining that the situation was "getting out of control."

Quebec Premier François Legault stepped into the fray Tuesday when his government intervened in support of Canadian Pacific Railway, which was granted an injunction to end all blockades of its lines in Quebec. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Legault also tried to persuade his fellow premiers to back a co-ordinated, nationwide police operation to break up the protests, but couldn't find enough support for his idea.

"Quebec cannot act alone," Legault said last Wednesday, adding bullishly, "I'm ready to take my responsibilities."

On Tuesday, Legault jumped from the sidelines onto the pitch.

His government filed documents in support of the injunction sought by Canadian Pacific Railway against the blockade in Kahnawake. It also requested an injunction to clear the Listuguj encampment.

Legault got his wish. The injunctions were granted. Now, though, he must confront the question of how they will be enforced.

A history of tensions

Injunctions already have been granted and carried out by police in Quebec on demonstrations outside First Nations territories. The Sherbrooke, Que., police force arrested around 20 people protesting on the CP line Tuesday in the city's Lennoxville neighbourhood, in the Eastern Townships, without incident.

But enforcing the injunctions in Listuguj — and particularly in Kahnawake — will be more complicated.

Kahnawake has had its own police service, the Peacekeepers, since 1979; it was created after a 28-year-old Mohawk named David Cross was shot and killed by a provincial police officer in front of his own home while defending his brother, who'd been chased there after being caught speeding.

Kahnawake Mohawk law grants the Peacekeepers "exclusive jurisdiction" over policing matters within the territory.

A Mohawk Peacekeeper patrols Kahnawake after the shooting of David Cross by provincial police in October 1979. After Cross's death, tensions in the community were running so high that Quebec provincial police officials ordered their officers to stay off the reserve. (CBC archives)

Under current policing protocols, the SQ informs the Peacekeepers if they are doing more than simply passing through the Mohawk territory.

When outside police forces have attempted large-scale operations in Kahnawake in the past without local co-operation, tensions escalated rapidly — and dangerously.

This notice, warning Quebec provincial police away from Kahnawake, was spray-painted on an underpass in the community after 28-year-old David Cross was shot and killed by a police officer in front of his home in October, 1979. (CBC archives)

In 1988, nearly 200 Mounties raided cigarette stores in Kahnawake — an operation that was seen as an affront to Mohawk sovereignty. Mohawk activists barricaded the Mercier Bridge for 29 hours in response.

Two years later, an SQ raid in Kanesatake — in which a police officer was shot dead — triggered the 78-day standoff known as the Oka Crisis.

During that crisis, Kahnawake warriors blockaded the Mercier Bridge again in support of their fellow Mohawks; they didn't take down their barricades until the Canadian army was called in. Military leaders negotiated the withdrawal of warriors from the bridge seven weeks after the barricades went up.

'Old enough to remember Oka': Legault

Legault says he's aware of the friction that an SQ presence in Kahnawake could cause.

"I'm old enough to remember Oka," he told reporters Tuesday morning, just before the injunction was granted.

But it's not clear from his comments that Legault fully grasped the potential for protracted conflict.

"I'm confident that the Sûreté du Québec will succeed in dismantling the barricades everywhere in Quebec," he said moments later, invoking the possibility of a joint operation by the SQ and the Peacekeepers to free the CP rail line in Kahnawake.

Legault didn't appear to be aware that just hours before, at a meeting of concerned Kahnawake residents — many of whom invoked the traumatic memories of the Oka crisis — the head of the Peacekeepers made it clear his officers would never enforce an injunction against the blockade.

"The Kahnawake Peacekeepers don't have any interest in criminalizing people for standing up for our rights," Dwayne Zacharie said.

A Kahnawake Mohawk Peacekeeper approaches the barricaded CP rail line Monday. Chief Peacekeeper Dwayne Zacharie said later that day his force will not enforce an injunction to end the blockade set up in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territory. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

So far, the SQ has said little about its intentions and has referred questions to CP's police force. As for the federal government, it's been quite happy to punt this particular problem back to Legault.

"It's really up to the province to decide how to proceed," federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Tuesday. 

For the injunction to take effect, the protesters at the blockade in Kahnawake would first have to be served by a bailiff, possibly escorted by law enforcement.

That hasn't happened yet. In fact, since the injunction was granted Tuesday morning, people on the barricades have dumped gravel near the tracks and added concrete blocks and other obstacles to further restrict access to the rail line where the barricade is located.

"The next step, once it's served, is the possible physical intervention by outside police forces. So they have to take certain precautions," Kenneth Deer, a representative of Kahnawake's traditional Longhouse political system, told reporters near barricade.

"They do not intend to end this barricade."

Who is responsible for what happens next?

For several days now, Legault has made it clear that the economic cost of the blockades is too high to be tolerated any longer.

He's cited job losses, shortages of propane, suffering farmers and inconvenienced commuters. He said Quebec is losing $100 million daily to the blockades.

"The barricades have to be dismantled for the good of the economy," Legault said Tuesday.

His rhetoric creates the expectation of action among those inclined to agree with the premier.

By becoming party to the injunctions handed down yesterday, Legault's government has accepted at least partial responsibility for what happens next. This is not just Ottawa's problem any more.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Loreen Pindera