Movement sweeping country with blockades will shift focus to Ottawa, says Secwepemc chief

The movement sweeping the country with rail and road blockades since the Feb. 6 RCMP raid in Wet'suwet'en territory will likely shift its focus to Parliament Hill, according to Neskonlith te Secwepemc Chief Judy Wilson.

Judy Wilson says PM will have to face the land rights and sovereignty issues at the root of issue

Demonstrators from the Neskonlith Indian Band set up a blockade along the CP Rail tracks between Chase and Kamloops on Feb. 20. After a 96-hour truce, demonstrators have again blocked the tracks. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC News)

The movement sweeping the country with rail blockades since the RCMP raid in Wet'suwet'en territory earlier this month will likely shift its focus to Parliament Hill, according to a Secwepemc chief. 

Neskonlith te Secwepemc Chief Judy Wilson said the movement has already hit the steps of the B.C. legislature with days-long sit-ins and it's only a matter of time before events begin to concentrate on Ottawa and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's perceived inaction to deal with the land rights and sovereignty issues at the root of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs' opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

"Trudeau is very comfortable in his Parliamentary legislature in Ottawa and his office. It hasn't been brought to him," said Wilson, whose community is part of the Secwepemc nation.

"That is what is causing a lot of these blockades and highway shutdowns. It's because of Trudeau's inability to deal with it."

Ottawa has already faced protests and marches, but they have only lasted a few hours, closing downtown streets.

Wilson said Trudeau should have met with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs after he cancelled his trip to the Caribbean last week to deal with the highway and rail blockades and demonstrations that continue across the country. 

Wilson said the move to Ottawa would echo events like the Constitution Express of 1980 and 1981 that Trudeau's father faced, when Indigenous leaders chartered trains from Vancouver to Ottawa to press for the recognition of Indigenous rights in the Constitution.

Judy Wilson, Neskonlith te Secwepemc Chief. (CBC)

Members of the Secwepemc nation again blocked the CP rail tracks last night near Chase, B.C., about 50 km east of Kamloops, following a 96-hour truce with the rail company that saw its CEO Keith Creel release an open letter asking the prime minister to meet with the Wet'suwet'en chiefs. 

Wilson said Secwepemc members felt that Creel's letter "fell on deaf ears" and that their actions were also spurred by the RCMP's arrest of two Gitxsan hereditary chiefs Monday night at a rail blockade near New Hazelton, B.C., and the Ontario Provincial Police break up of a camp set up by Mohawks of Tyendinaga along CN tracks. 

Miranda Dyck, with the Secwepemc Women's Sacred Fire Council, said she believes the blockades and demonstrations are evolving into something much bigger than the events in Wet'suwet'en territory.

"It's gone beyond that. We have 550 years of what colonization looks like," said Dyck on Monday.

"I feel all throughout Canada, there will be an uprising."

Events in Wet'suwet'en territory spark blockades

B.C. RCMP began enforcing an injunction against Wet'suwet'en camps built to block access to their territory by pipeline company workers on Feb. 6. Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs say the $6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline is being pushed through their territory without their consent. 

While the pipeline has the support of five of six Wet'suwet'en band councils, which are governed by the Indian Act, the hereditary chiefs say jurisdiction over territory outside of reserve boundaries falls under the authority of their traditional government.

Ontario Provincial Police officers face people as protesting in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en Nation hereditary chiefs attempting to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline on their traditional territory, at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, near Belleville, Ont., on Monday. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The Mohawks of Tyendinaga set up camp along CN Rail tracks near Belleville, Ont., on Feb. 6, shutting down one of Canada's busiest rail corridors. On Monday, Ontario Provincial Police enforced an injunction obtained by the rail company and arrested 10 people. 

The move Monday by the OPP sparked a highway blockade in the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, west of Montreal, and a rolling blockade in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community south of Montreal. 

Dyck said systemic issues around inadequate consultation with Indigenous Peoples over resource projects on their territory, the environment, housing, poverty and child welfare apprehensions would drive a new phase of the movement that carries echoes of Idle No More. 

A man and child walk towards a blockade on the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory south of Montreal, on Monday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The Idle No More movement sparked over legislative changes by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper that affected Indigenous rights. While the movement did see rail blockades, it was mainly driven by large marches across the country and round dance flash mobs. 

"It's beyond Idle No More…This is direct action where you are actually doing something to impede Canada's economics," said Dyck. 

"Idle No More was a very subtle introduction to the awakening of the Indigenous communities."

Communities committed to dialogue, says former AFN chief

Former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine said he doesn't expect to see the current movement penetrate as deeply as Idle No More did to individual communities. 

"The vast majority of the Indigenous communities are committed to dialogue, collaborative discussions, collaborative undertakings," said Fontaine. 

"I sense they don't have the energy to engage in these mass protests and blockades as much, as we have seen in terms of the disruption in rail transportation. The vast majority of people are committed to working things out peacefully and without resorting to protests, demonstrations and blockades."

Former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine says 'The vast majority of people are committed to working things out peacefully and without resorting to protests, demonstrations and blockades.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Fontaine said reconciliation is far from dead. 

"We all knew going into this that reconciliation wasn't going to be easy, that it was going to take time. It is entirely achievable," he said. 

However, another project could give new life to the movement — the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Tsleil Waututh Nation Sundance Chief Rueben George, whose community on the shores of the Burrard Inlet in B.C. opposes the Trans Mountain expansion project, said the protests — which have included shutdowns of downtown streets in Vancouver and of the city's ports — are only going to get bigger. 

Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation speaks to media after the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss an appeal by multiple First Nations against the TMX pipeline expansion in Vancouver on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"I don't think it's just us First Nations… It's mainly youth and the youth don't like the future we are handing them," he said. 

"And that is why it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger as people are starting to understand the truth." 

George said that while his community has decided to continue fighting Trans Mountain in the courts — they have gone to the Supreme Court after losing before the Federal Court of Appeal — some in his community are looking at other options.

"There are a lot of frustrated people," he said. 



Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him