Partial rail blockade in support of Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs erected in Saskatoon

At around 1 p.m. demonstrators from Saskatoon gathered at the rail lines near Avenue J South, holding signs, placing pallets on both sides of the track and establishing a small camp of roughly 20 people beside the rail line.

Demonstration spurs pro-pipeline, counter demonstration at site

David Kelly holds up a banner at a partial rail blockade that was erected in Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. There, demonstrators gathered in solidarity with those working to halt the construction a natural gas pipeline that is opposed by the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs in B.C. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC )

Tensions ran high as a partial blockade on a Canadian Pacific Railway line through Saskatoon went up on Saturday afternoon, triggering a counter protest in the city's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood.

At around 1 p.m. demonstrators from Saskatoon gathered at the rail lines near Avenue J South, holding signs, placing pallets on both sides of the track and establishing a small camp of roughly 20 people beside the rail line.

While the aim of the blockade was to slow, and potentially halt train traffic through the city, demonstrators did not actually obstruct the tracks, but camped nearby instead.

Erica Violet Lee is one of the organizers of the blockade. She said the demonstration was taking place as an act of solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs in B.C. and those blocking the construction of a natural gas pipeline through their ancestral territory.

The group claims those demonstrating against the pipeline have been the target of colonial violence from the RCMP, the Canadian Government and extraction industries.

Erica Violet Lee, one of the organizers behind Saturday's blockade, speaks to reporters at the site of the blockade on Feb. 22, 2020. She says demonstrators at the blockade will not be intimidated by counter demonstrators. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

"We are taking this action to join the international campaign asking the RCMP to stand down in Wet'suwet'en territories," she said as demonstrators converged on CP property.

Lee said the plan is for the camp to remain in place, as demonstrators will maintain a "peaceful stance" for as long as it takes to make trains stop.

"I've heard the media rhetoric about Canadians losing patience with Indigenous peoples," she said. 

"I just want folks to know that we have been patient for a very long time now in terms of water rights, land rights and our sovereignty being violated, so it's an anti-colonial movement from Wet'suwet'en to Treaty 6 and all across these lands."

David Kelly holds a banner over his head as he looks at counter demonstrators who gathered at the site of a partial rail blockade that was erected in Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood on Feb. 22, 2020. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

The camp was erected a day after Prime Minister Trudeau called for the barricades across the country to be removed.

Saskatoon police were monitoring the demonstration when it began on Saturday afternoon, with a relatively small police presence on-site at first. During a meeting between officers and demonstrators, police told organizers they were on-site to monitor the situation, ensure everyone was safe, noting they would not be intervening.

"Right now, we're just going to sit back and watch," a police officer told Lee.

One of the people taking part in the demonstration was 19-year-old David Kelly. Holding one of the banners while standing on a chair behind one of the pallets, he said he felt it was important to get involved. 

"There wasn't enough movement, but now, people are starting to get involved and I like it," he said. When asked about the police presence, he said, it's a sign their message is being heard. 

"It shows that we're getting somewhere," he said.

A counter demonstrator and a blockade demonstrator face off at a partial rail blockade that was erected in Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood on Feb. 22, 2020. Those who set up the blockade are doing so in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs in B.C. while counter demonstrators wanted the blockade removed and demonstrators arrested. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Twenty elected First Nations band councils along the 670 kilometre pipeline route, which stretches from the Dawson Creek area to an export terminal in Kitimat, have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink.

The pipeline was also approved by the B.C. government. But the hereditary clan chiefs, who are leaders under the traditional form of governance, say the project has no authority without their consent.

The company says on its website the construction of the pipeline will "safely deliver natural gas across northern B.C." and the approved route was "determined by considering Indigenous, landowner and stakeholder input, the environment, archeological and cultural values, land use compatibility, safety, constructability and economics." 

Those demonstrating in favour of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs were eventually joined at the site by a group of pro-pipeline counter-demonstrators who felt the partial blockade should be removed, with some getting angry at police for not making arrests.

At this time, friction at the blockade increased.

There were some angry words exchanged between the two groups, with voices raised and tension running high, but police, for the most part, were able to keep the two groups separated and keep the demonstrations peaceful.

Arley Laroque was one of the counter protesters on site. He said he was just trying to start a dialogue with the demonstrators.

"I've been seeing our country being held hostage … with these groups that are shutting down our country," he said. "I'm here to try to understand what they're here for."

Laroque said he asked demonstrators for their reasoning behind the blockade, but said he never got an answer.

"They will not even answer me, so I'm confused," he said. "I'm wondering what they're about. How they got here, what their problem is with our country. What their problem is with the pipeline and if they even know what pipelines they're against."

Arley Laroque, one of the counter demonstrators at Saturday's blockade, said he showed up at the site to try and start a dialogue with the demonstrators behind the blockade, as he feels these types of demonstrations are holding the country hostage. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Others, like Dave Knakoske, said he was opposed to the blockade, saying demonstrations like this are "hurting millions of Canadians." 

"This affects our economy," he said. "People are losing their jobs and it's just unacceptable."

He said he would have liked to see police making arrests at the blockade, saying he didn't expect the blockade to go over well with people in Saskatoon.

"I hope they act before the citizens of Saskatoon act," he said. 

For Lee, she said the counter-demonstration did not intimidate those at the blockade, saying for many Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, there's always a risk of harm. 

"This is a peaceful action and we're doing it for our children, for future generations, for the land and the water in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en people," she said. "So we'll just stay as long as we can and not let them deter us."

In an emailed statement, Canadian Pacific Railway said they're aware of the demonstration and is "monitoring the situation."

A demonstrator stands near a partial railway blockade in the city's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood as a train passes through Saskatoon on Feb. 22, 2020. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

On Saturday afternoon, the Government of Saskatchewan issued a statement about the demonstration, saying they've been made aware of the situation and said Saskatoon police are monitoring the situation closely. 

"While everyone has the right to peaceful protest, it is our expectation that these protests remain lawful and that transportation routes are not disrupted by illegal blockades," the statement noted.

On Saturday, demonstrators allowed two trains to pass through the area where they've established camp, but said the aim of the demonstration remains to slow, and potentially, stop rail traffic through Saskatoon.

Construction on part of the pipeline's current proposed route is now on hold, as the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office has ruled they must consult further with Indigenous communities along part of the route.

The company has been given 30 days to hold those talks before resubmitting its final report for approval.

With files from CBC News