Tyendinaga Mohawk chief agrees to meet Indigenous services minister to discuss Ontario blockade

Click to play video: 'Federal minister offers to meet with Tyendinaga demonstrators if they remove blockade'
Federal minister offers to meet with Tyendinaga demonstrators if they remove blockade
WATCH: The federal minister of Indigenous services contacted the chief of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory on Wednesday, offering to sit down with demonstrators on Saturday as long as the two blockades in the area are dismantled – Feb 13, 2020

The Tyendinaga Mohawk chief has agreed to meet federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller on Saturday to discuss the blockade near Belleville, Ont., that has held up rail traffic in the area for more than a week.

Friday marks the eighth day in a row that protesters stationed at a rail crossing in Tyendinaga Township, just meters from Mohawk territory, have camped out at the site. Along with this blockade, others like it across the country have forced passenger and freight train travel to halt throughout Canada.

Via Rail announced Thursday that it would be cancelling services on most of its lines, with the exception of the following routes: Sudbury-White River, which uses Canadian Pacific Railway infrastructure, and Churchill-The Pas, which uses the Hudson Bay Railway.

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The news came Thursday afternoon after Via Rail announced the Canadian National Railway (CN) was “no longer in a position to fulfill their obligations under the Train Service Agreement between VIA Rail and CN Rail.”

CN also said in its own statement that it was “forced to initiate a disciplined and progressive shutdown of its operations in eastern Canada.”

The decision means the national rail company will be stopping “all transcontinental trains across its Canadian network.” CN also said the shutdown of eastern rail lines may lead to temporary layoffs.

Via Rail’s president and CEO Cynthia Garneau said the situation is out of the transportation company’s hands.

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“We hope for an end to this situation soon, however, it is not in our control,” Garneau said in a statement posted to Twitter on Friday evening.

Refunds are being processed as quickly as possible, she said.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says it’s been ‘really difficult week for Canadians’ amid rail blockades'
Trudeau says it’s been ‘really difficult week for Canadians’ amid rail blockades

On Thursday, Miller wrote a letter to three chiefs in Ontario regarding the Tyendinaga Mohawk blockade, saying he wanted to arrange a meeting with them on Saturday.

“My request, that I ask you kindly to consider, is to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable. As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of the utmost importance to me,” Miller said in the email, a copy of which he posted publicly Thursday morning.

The Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte are meeting Friday at the council house to discuss the demonstration.

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Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Don Maracle confirmed on Friday that he would be meeting with Miller Saturday. He says Friday’s meeting was not hosted by the Mohawk band council, but is for the “community as whole” to allow them to discuss what will come of the meeting with the minister the next day.

Maracle says the Mohawk hope to allow dialogue to occur for a positive outcome — what the outcome looks like, he says, all depends on how conversations go.

He added that they wish the Wet’suwet’en community peace and hope for a positive outcome.

A media advisory issued Friday evening indicates the minister will meet with the Mohawk Nation at 10 a.m. ET Saturday at the Wyman Road CN rail crossing.

The advisory says the minister “has requested to ‘Polish the Silver Covenant Chain,’ one of the original agreements between Mohawks and the Crown, to address the issues that both Canada and the Mohawks have.”

“The Mohawks have agreed to meet with him,” the advisory says. “Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters alike are welcome to travel to Tyendinaga tomorrow to witness the historic event.”

The blockade set up in Tyendinaga Township began last Thursday evening following RCMP raids on Wet’suwet’en land in British Columbia prompted by a B.C. Supreme Court decision to allow police to enter unceded territory for the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

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Click to play video: 'Economic toll of the Coastal GasLink pipeline protests'
Economic toll of the Coastal GasLink pipeline protests

Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline’s 670-kilometre route, but hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation say they have title to a vast section of the land and have never relinquished it by signing a treaty.

The Tyendinaga blockade near Belleville originally halted service between Montreal and Toronto and between Ottawa and Toronto, with Via Rail ultimately deciding to cancel all departures in both directions until the end of Friday.

Now, except for the corridors listed above, Via Rail has cancelled its services in the area until further notice.

Via Rail says it will automatically issue full refunds for the cancelled trips but cautioned that it could take up to 15 days for the transactions to go through.

Camps have set up outside the rail line in Tyendinaga Township.

Although the Tyendinaga blockade started small, with just a few vehicles parked at the side of the rail crossing at Wyman Road, it has now grown into a full-fledged camp with tents and camper vans set up on the site.

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As of Friday, protesters are keeping media back at a distance and it’s unclear how many people are stationed at the camp.

Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, an Indigenous activist from Attawapiskat First Nation, told Global News on Thursday that the protest in Tyendinaga has grown beyond a pipeline dispute.

“My people did not invade Europe. We’re home and we’re not going anywhere,” Wabano-Iahtail said in a passionate speech at the blockade on Thursday. “No longer will we be oppressed, no longer will we be subjugated, no longer will be we dehumanized, no longer will you terrorize us for free. That’s not happening anymore because guess it’s our children that we’re burying.”

Despite Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) delivering an injunction obtained by CN to protesters at the Tyendinaga site over the weekend, no action has been taken to step in and arrest the protesters.

On Thursday, OPP East Region spokesperson Bill Dickson said there were no imminent plans for arrests.

“Our goal is to seek a safe and peaceful resolution to this situation,” Dickson said Friday in an emailed statement.

“The proper use of police discretion is a valid, appropriate approach to de-escalating situations such as this. The proper exercise of police discretion should not be confused with a lack of enforcement.”

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Dickson continued, saying officers are calling on protesters to abide by CN’s injunction, but the OPP “respects the right of everyone to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Other blockades in northern British Columbia and Winnipeg have been dismantled following promises of talks with provincial and federal leaders, and injunctions obtained by CN.

— With files from Global News’ Maryam Shah and Sean Boynton and the Canadian Press

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