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Do Tyendinaga Mohawk protests amount to ‘terrorism’? Experts say no

New protests at Tyendinaga create rising concerns as fires set
WATCH: A new group of protesters who set up camp at Tyendinaga in Ontario, with a fire being set by the tracks as a train went by and a car set ablaze on Wednesday, are watching intently as Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs are expected to meet with federal ministers on Thursday, Feb. 27.

The actions of protesters who set fire under a moving CN Rail train in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory were quickly condemned by the Trudeau government as reckless and unsafe, but resulted in no arrests.

Video posted to social media Wednesday by Real Peoples Media showed several masked Tyendinaga protesters setting wooden skids on fire on the tracks of a CN rail line near Belleville, Ont. as a train passed by.

“Mohawk Warriors here are adamant that no train shall pass,” said an unidentified man in the video.

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Another video showed several men throwing rocks and other objects at trains as Ontario Provincial Police officers observed from a short distance away.

Videos also showed protesters standing on the tracks as a train approached before jumping out of the way at the last second.

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O’Toole took to social media to denounce the actions of Tyendinaga protesters as “terrorism.”

“Setting fire to and attempting to derail trains in this context is terrorism according to section 83.01 of the Criminal Code,” said O’Toole, an MP for the Ontario riding of Durham

“Enough is enough. This has crossed the line from illegal protest to terrorism. That’s how it should be treated.”

Do the actions amount to terrorism?

People stand next to a pile of tires on fire near to a second smaller encampment during a raid to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory main camp in Tyendinaga, Ontario, Canada February 24, 2020.
People stand next to a pile of tires on fire near to a second smaller encampment during a raid to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory main camp in Tyendinaga, Ontario, Canada February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

National security law expert Prof. Leah West said the actions come close to meeting the definition of a terrorist act under Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation, but fail to meet key criteria.

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West said terrorist activity must be done for a certain motive, like political or religious reasons, and must intimidate the public or compel a government into a specific action.

Both these requirements are met, according to West.

READ MORE: Ministers en route to Wet’suwet’en territory for ‘truly important meetings’

However, these actions likely wouldn’t result in a successful prosecution as the intent must have a significantly violent or destructive outcome.

“It’s not just enough that you damage property, it’s not just enough that you disrupt services, the intent has to be one that the destruction could lead to a loss of life,” she said.

West said while the actions are “dangerous,” they’re not on a level with terrorist activity.

“They are walking up to the line but not crossing it,” she said.

READ MORE: Fires set along railway tracks as protests continue in Tyendinaga

National security expert Stephanie Carvin said it’s not helpful to label these actions as terrorism and there are other criminal charges that could be filed. Ten people in Tyendinaga were charged with mischief and disobeying a court order Monday.

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“There was a concern that [Canada’s anti-terrorism] legislation would be used to crush protests and freedom of speech,” said Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“We need to be careful with what we are labelling terrorism or violent extremism in a highly-charged political context.”

Asked whether police were looking at laying charges after the fires Wednesday, OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said he couldn’t comment on “operational activity or planning.”

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“Our Provincial Liaison Team did engage protestors and others at the site to talk about the dangerous activities and to de-escalate the situation,” Dickson said in an email. “As a result of these efforts, tensions and activity at the scene did ease.

“We continue to focus on peaceful measures to resolve this situation.”

Public Safety Minister questioned

Conservative MP Doug Shipley questioned Public Safety Minister Bill Blair Thursday about whether the “illegal blockades” happening across Canada are being “deemed as a terrorist activity.”

Protesters at Kahnawake, Que. blockade not leaving yet
Protesters at Kahnawake, Que. blockade not leaving yet

“No they’re not,” Blair said during testimony at the House of Commons public safety and national security committee.

“I have a responsibility [as minister] to leave it to the police of jurisdiction in the exercise of their discretion to determine and investigate criminal activity. So I avoid pronouncements of and defining that activity.”
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Blair called the actions “unsafe” and said he would let police handle the situation.

“I do not want to interfere with the operational independence of both the police and our prosecutors. But at the same time that was terribly unsafe, deeply concerning. I have confidence in the police to deal with it appropriately.”

Public Safety Minister says there is ‘hope of resolution’ as long as discussions on rail blockades continue
Public Safety Minister says there is ‘hope of resolution’ as long as discussions on rail blockades continue

Rail and road blockades have sprung up across the country for weeks in support for the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northwestern British Columbia who oppose the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project

On Feb. 6, the RCMP moved to enforce a court injunction on Wet’suwet’en territory, which sparked solidarity protests in Ontario and Quebec, blocking rail travel between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

READ MORE: Calls for calm after Quebec premier claims, without evidence, there are dangerous assault rifles in Kahnawake

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On Monday, the OPP cleared a blockade set by Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters that had throttled CN’s main eastern Canada railway link.

Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous relations Carolyn Bennett confirmed Thursday morning that she had arrived in Vancouver and was en route to Smithers, B.C. for “truly important meetings” with B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

Protesters still trying to disrupt trains in Tyendinaga, Ont.
Protesters still trying to disrupt trains in Tyendinaga, Ont.

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Canadian National Railway Co. had a logjam of 184 trains sitting in Canada and the United States as a result of rail disruptions and the backlog could take “many, many weeks” to fix.

He condemned the actions of protesters Wednesday as “extremely reckless.”

“It was something that not only put in danger the life of the people who were actually lighting this fire under a moving train, but also could have been very dangerous for many other people,” Garneau told reporters Wednesday.

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“What if this train was carrying dangerous materials? It could have ignited.

— With files from the Canadian Press