Idle No More Protests Stop VIA Rail Trains

Details of Blockage Outside Belleville Kept from Passengers

Protestors march in downtown Montreal on December 28 in solidarity with Idle No More demonstrations taking place across the country. Photo Thien Vo

After three-and-a-half hours without moving, a cavalry of buses had finally arrived for the passengers stuck on trains outside Belleview station Sunday night—and just before they could leave, another change of plans was announced over the loudspeaker.

They were told to board the trains again, only to wait for almost 45 minutes.

“I was expecting [passengers] to chew my head off right then,” said a VIA Rail train supervisor wishing to only be identified as Luke. “I know I wouldn’t like getting the wrong information.”

At around 5 p.m. shipping lines and the most popular commercial train corridor in Canada came to a standstill.

The stoppage stemmed from a trackside protest in support of native treaty rights and the emerging Idle No More social campaign. Protesters included members from the surrounding Tyendinaga Mohawk community.

The demonstration voiced solidarity with Theresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat on a hunger strike since Dec. 11 in order to get a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Governor General to discuss Crown treaty obligations towards reserve lands.

A major concern of the movement is the controversial omnibus Bill C-45, which its dissenters say allows the federal government and industry to exploit native reserves for their natural resources.

During the stoppage Luke says all VIA administration had told him was that the protesters “would stop the train for two hours, just to make a point.”

But the email outlining this was not sent to him until roughly 6:50 p.m, he said. He announced to the passengers they might finally be ready to leave—but the overdue relief was short-lived.

“They called me 15 minutes after, telling me okay, another 15 minutes and it should be clear,” said Luke. However, the delays continued for over two hours.

Buses finally arrived around 8:30 p.m. Instead of waiting out for tracks to be cleared, personnel began transferring passengers.

Yet once herded in the bus terminal and divided by destination, an announcement advised travelers that the blockade had ended.

Most passengers were largely understanding of the protest, though admittedly frustrated.

Adding to the situation was a depletion of food onboard the trains.

Luke says he was hoping for new provisions to be brought on board in Kingston, but a delivery to refill the train’s stock had not yet arrived.

That night on-air with CTV News however, VIA media relations spokesperson Malcolm Andrews said that passengers were in fact well informed and fed. Calls to VIA for comment were not returned.

According to Luke, train menus do not stock enough of some items to feed even half of a full train.

A Grassroots Effort

Though many of the protesters were from the local Mohawk population, Tyendinaga Mohawk Council Chief R. Donald Maracle says the trackside demonstration was a grassroots effort, not coordinated by the council.

According to Maracle, the protesters speak for themselves.

“I don’t really think the protestors’ leaders from the grassroots want the chiefs taking over their issues,” he admitted.

Last week, the official Idle No More website published a release distancing the social movement from the band councils and chiefs across the country, saying Idle No More leaders have been “given a clear mandate by the grassroots to work outside of the systems of government and that is what we will continue to do.”

“We ask that the protests be non-violent and they be peaceful, and that they be done to garner and generate public supports from the Canadian citizens and particularly the industry that exploits [reserved] land and our resources,” said Chief Maracle, not wanting to speak on behalf of the growing body.

His wish for peace extends beyond this wave of protests; Maracle says he hopes that going forward, all sides in flux over aboriginal issues stay cordial.

“It’s a time to look for solutions and to not be critical of each other,” he advised. “There are many people who have to share this land and I think the goal should be prosperity and fairness for all.”

To him, that is what the grassroots movements emerging from native communities is articulating.

“The first nations people have never set out to hurt anyone in this country,” he said. “But they do seek fairness and they do seek justice.”

Yet despite at least 12 trains being halted in Montreal and throughout Ontario that day, both Maracle and reports from the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network say the blockading group was never on the track lines to begin with.

Representatives from the Ontario Provincial Police were unavailable for comment to confirm the exact location of the protest.