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No movement at rail blockade near Belleville, Ont. after weeks of halting rail traffic

Supporters bring supplies to protesters during a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ont. on Monday, Feb.17, 2020, in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. .
Supporters bring supplies to protesters during a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ont. on Monday, Feb.17, 2020, in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. . THE CANADIAN PRESS / Lars Hagberg

It’s day 14 of the blockade near Belleville, Ont., that has stopped rail traffic in Ontario and much of Eastern Canada.

Cold winds whip the Mohawk, Haudenosaunee and Two Row flags mounted at the blockade, while many of the protesters take cover in tents and a camper trailer set up on the south side of the tracks at Wyman Road in Tyendinaga Township.

READ MORE: No clear end in sight as Ontario blockade nears 2 weeks of halting rail traffic

The conditions are harsh at the blockade on wintery days. The rail crossing where the protesters have set up camp since Feb. 6 has no surrounding trees to block the wind.

People have been seen taking supplies to the group, most of whom are from Mohawk Tyendinaga Territory just metres away from the crossing.

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When the blockade was initially set up, an Amazon wishlist was set up for the protesters, with items like a propane water heater, military-grade winter jackets and zip ties all added Feb. 19.

This protest, the first of many of its kind, began as an act of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose RCMP intervention at a Coastal GasLink pipeline worksite, which is on unceded land in northern British Columbia. Despite other blockades popping up around the country, the Mohawk protest near Belleville is the longest running blockade and has affected passenger travel and shipment of goods in Ontario and eastern Canada for the last two weeks.

Starting Feb. 6, the blockade forced Via Rail to cancel travel between Toronto and Montreal, and on Feb. 13, Via announced it would be cancelling passenger rail across the country due to the Tyendinaga blockade and others like it across the country.

That same day, CN announced it had “been forced to initiate a disciplined and progressive shutdown” of its Eastern Canada operations.

READ MORE: Shutdown of Canadian National Railway lines leads to propane shortages

This past Tuesday, Via announced they would be reintroducing rail travel between Québec City–Montréal–Ottawa on Thursday.

On Wednesday, CN said they will be upholding their shutdown of rail in Eastern Canada until the “illegal blockades” are lifted. A CN statement said the company would be opening passenger travel for Via Rail on the “short-distance corridors of Quebec-Montreal, Montreal-Ottawa, Toronto-London-Windsor, Toronto-Sarnia, and Toronto-Niagara” despite the blockade near Belleville.

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“By doing it progressively, we are taking the responsible approach. In the last few days, many illegal blockades occurred on our network. It is unsafe to allow passenger trains to start trips across our network when we have no control over where, when, or how an illegal blockade may occur,” the CN statement said. “It would be irresponsible to allow the travelling public to be stranded in a blockade.”

Despite CN’s greenlight, Via changed its tune, saying they would be continuing their cancellation of services across the country with the exception of the Sudbury-White River and Churchill-The Pas lines, and they will would not be opening its eastern Ontario lines as it had previously planned.

Via said they would be forced to lay off 1,000 employees.

READ MORE: Via Rail to temporarily lay off 1,000 workers amid rail blockades

“This general interruption is an unprecedented situation in our history,” president and CEO of Via Cynthia Garneau said. “In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that VIA Rail, a public intercity passenger rail service, has to interrupt most of its services across the country,” she declared.

CN said Tuesday they would have to lay off 450 workers in its Eastern Canada operations due to the cancellation of more than 400 trains in the past week.

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Nevertheless, it’s unclear if the CN layoffs have anything to do with the company’s plans to cut its workforce of 3,200 in half, as announced late last year. Although they announced the 450 layoffs in the wake of the shutdown forced by the blockades, the company has not clarified if these layoffs are in addition to the ones previously announced and whether or not they would be temporary. CN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

AFN chief calls for peaceful resolution to Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests, rail blockades
AFN chief calls for peaceful resolution to Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests, rail blockades

Although OPP have continuously been on-scene at the blockades in Tyendinaga, with about three cruisers always stationed several hundred metres from the rail crossing, OPP have not acted on an injunction delivered to protesters Feb. 9.

“The OPP goal continues to be preserving the peace and maintaining a safe environment for everyone,” OPP East Region spokesperson Lori Lobinowich said.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller met with protesters for hours on Saturday near the Tyendinaga blockade, followed by a private meeting on the territory, but no movement has been made since then.

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Indigenous Services Minister updates progress with Mohawk First Nation
Indigenous Services Minister updates progress with Mohawk First Nation

Miller said the federal government had opened a dialogue and “some modest progress” had been made, but said there was a lot of work left to be done. Miller’s sentiment to exercise caution was echoed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament Wednesday.

“There are those who would want us to act in haste;” Trudeau said, “who want us to boil this down to slogans and ignore complexities; who think using force is helpful. It is not.”
“Patience may be in short supply but that makes it more valuable than ever.”

Opposition leader Andrew Scheer called Trudeau’s response the “weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.”

READ MORE: Quebec premier tells Trudeau to set deadline to end rail blockades

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The debate in Parliament came shortly after several Indigenous chiefs, including  Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Donald Maracle delivered a press conference in Ottawa to discuss the blockades.

Bellegarde said he believes the blockades would end if RCMP occupation of Wet’suwet’en land ends.

First Nations leaders say blockades should come to ‘peaceful end’ if guarantees met
First Nations leaders say blockades should come to ‘peaceful end’ if guarantees met

“What’s going on across Canada, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs asked for help and support, and people have heard that call,” Bellegarde said. “It’s all about peace, and if you put those principles of peace, and respect and working together, things will come down, because that’s the law of peace.”

When asked what it would take for those stationed at the rail crossing in Tyendinaga to end their protest, Maracle wouldn’t answer.

“The protest was not organized by the Mohawk Council,” Maracle told reporters. Although he said he may have knowledge of the protesters’ plan, Maracle said he did not want to share those plans out of respect for the group’s rights.

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On Wednesday, Global News confirmed that Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs would be travelling to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory to strengthen the alliance between the Wet’suwet’en and the Mohawk.

—With files from Global New’s Hannah Jackson and The Canadian Press.