Rail blockades are proving to be an effective non-violent response to state violence
by Brent Patterson
In the early hours of February 6, militarized Canadian police began a five-day long assault on the unceded and sovereign territory of the Wet’suwet’en people in northern British Columbia to facilitate the construction of a fracked gas pipeline that lacks that nation’s consent.
Nine days later, Wet’suwet’en land defender Dinize Ste ohn tsiy tweeted that a heavy RCMP presence on Wet’suwet’en territory continues.
In response to this violation of the rule of law (notably the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), Indigenous peoples and allies took to the rails to demand that the RCMP and TC Energy Coastal GasLink, the company behind the controversial pipeline, remove themselves from Wet’suwet’en territory.
Hours after the invasion began, the Mohawks established a blockade on the railway tracks near Belleville, Ontario. By Saturday, February 8, the Gitxsan had established a blockade on the railway line near New Hazelton, British Columbia.
Several other railway blockades were also soon established across the country by Indigenous peoples and allies including near Montreal, Quebec; Listuguj, Quebec; Headingley, Manitoba; Port Coquitlam, British Columbia; and Toronto, Ontario.
And this morning (Saturday, February 15), Climate Justice Toronto tweeted that the “2nd Largest Rail Classification Yard in Canada Blockaded” adding, “Folks have blockaded US-bound CN rail tracks in North York in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en!” That means that all trains going west to Hamilton, London, New York and Michigan are now blocked.
The Gitxsan blockade effectively shut down all activity at the Port of Prince Rupert, with more than 150 freight trains unable to move in or out of that port. Furthermore, 18 container ships in Prince Rupert and 48 ships in Vancouver could neither pick up or unload their shipments.
The Mohawk blockade resulted in the cancellation of all passenger travel between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and CN shutting down its operations in eastern Canada.
Mainstream media reports have highlighted some of the numbers: CN Rail said it transports more than $250 billion worth of goods annually; VIA Rail said it transported 5 million passengers across Canada in 2019; and that an eight-day CN Rail strike last year cost the economy between $1 billion and $2.2 billion, and CN $100 million in lost earnings.
Less reported in the news is that the railway system also transports about 300,000 barrels of oil (bitumen) everyday in this country and between 30-40 million tonnes of coal each year. And now mainstream media reports have focused on how municipal water systems may run out of chlorine to treat drinking water (without much, if any, contextualization about ongoing boil water advisories in Indigenous communities).
British Columbia’s NDP Premier John Horgan commented: “I respect everyone’s right to lawful protest but when you’re interfering with the operation of the economy at the ports and through the city here in the Lower Mainland, that becomes a challenge…”
Outgoing Conservative party Leader Andrew Scheer exclaimed: “These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege, they need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway system — small business, farmers — do their job.”
Walking Eagle News (a satire news website) mocked Scheer by tweeting: “Career politician who lives in taxpayer-funded house and whose party paid for his kid’s private school says Indigenous people blocking rail lines need to check their privilege.”
And Scheer’s possible successor as party leader Erin O’Toole released a video in which he said he “will fight to take back Canada” along with a tweet in which he said, “I will enforce the law and push back against eco-extremists.”
The theory of change
Do you remember politicians, transnational corporations and their lobby groups responding in this way to online petitions, letters to the editor, leafleting or rallies? No, not likely. Is it instructive (and patronizing) to be told by politicians the acceptable ways to protest? Most definitely.
In April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a jail cell: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
We have a long way to go, perhaps, before the RCMP and Coastal GasLink are removed from Wet’suwet’en territories as the blockaders demand.
It is notable, however, that the Trudeau government has dispatched Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller to meet with the Mohawks this weekend and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett to meet with the Gitxsan.
Political crisis/revolutionary moment?
A political crisis is created when there is no apparent answer to the situation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated: “We are not the kind of country where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters.”
And Transport Minister Marc Garneau said: “When injunctions are obtained by the train companies, it is up to the provinces. They are the ones who have the jurisdiction to act with respect to those injunctions. It is not the federal government.”
That said, police raids and injunctions aren’t likely to stop the exposure of blockades on the 49,422 kilometres of rail lines in this country.
The government’s hypocrisy about the rule of law (legal experts highlight that government actions have been in violation of Canada’s binding international law obligations and therefore illegal) or the opposition leader’s comment about “privilege” (when wealth accumulation in this country has been based on the dispossession of Indigenous people from their land and their continued immiseration) only serve to underscore the crisis.
Furthermore, Vancouver Island-based Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred suggested this could even be a revolutionary moment.
He said: “I can remember saying 15, 20 years ago, that if we ever had a development in our movement where the power of Indigenous nationhood and Indigenous rights could be melded and brought together with the power of young Canadians who are committed to the environment and social justice, it would be revolutionary.”
It remains to be seen how this will all develop, but it is clear that an impactful non-violent strategy is now being employed to counter the state violence of both the police repression of unarmed Wet’suwet’en land defenders and the continued imposition of fossil fuel infrastructure that only deepens the global climate crisis.
Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer.