Protesters march in Ottawa as police clear rail blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory

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Stock photo used for illustrative purposes only.

Several protesters were detained Monday morning as provincial police moved in to clear a rail blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Central Ontario that has brought freight and passenger rail traffic to a virtual standstill.

The arrests came hours after the protesters ignored a midnight deadline by police to leave their encampment near Belleville, Ont., or face criminal charges.

A column of police vehicles drove up the dirt road toward the blockade at around 8:30 a.m., and dozens of police officers lined up in front of the protesters at the encampment, which has been in place since Feb. 6.

Officers detained a few demonstrators, wrestling one to the ground before taking the group away. The officers held the line near the tracks until about 9:15 a.m. when they moved in again to take more men into custody.

The remaining protesters pulled back at that point while police took control of the area around the tracks.

While politicians praised the police handling of the situation, Indigenous leaders roundly criticized the operation.

"We condemn the use of force being used ... on people who are standing up for human rights and the land and water," said a statement from the Mohawk people of Tyendinaga. "The rule of law includes human rights and Indigenous rights."

The protesters had been occupying the site for more than two weeks in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, who oppose the development of a natural gas pipeline project that crosses their traditional territory in northwestern British Columbia.

Numerous similar rail and road blockades have sprung up in multiple provinces throughout the month, halting freight and passenger train service for much of the country.

Ontario Provincial Police said its liaison team had tried to negotiate peacefully with the Ontario protesters over the past few weeks.

"We have remained respectful of the ongoing dialogue, including issues of sovereignty between our Indigenous communities and various federal ministers, and have hoped for productive communication leading to a peaceful resolution," spokesman Bill Dickson said.

"... Unfortunately, all avenues to successfully negotiate a peaceful resolution have been exhausted."

A second encampment set up nearby remains in place, Dickson said. Tires were seen burning in that location Monday morning.

By midday, the main encampment remained and some demonstrators banged drums and chanted while workers from track owner Canadian National Railway Co. arrived on site and started inspecting the tracks.

CN issued a brief statement saying the company was please the "illegal blockade" had come to an end, but offered no indication when service would resume.

The barricades were set up in response to a move by the RCMP to clear protesters who had been blocking access to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline worksite on Wet'suwet'en territory.

The hereditary chiefs oppose the work on their traditional territory, despite support from elected band councils along the pipeline route.

One of the chiefs, Na'moks, said that while an RCMP mobile unit has now left the area, officers continue their patrols. Until that happens, and until Coastal GasLink commits to removing its workers from the land, Na'moks said the chiefs will not hold talks with the federal government.

The chief, who also goes by John Ridsdale, offered words of encouragement for the Ontario protesters.

"They're doing the right thing for the right reasons," he said.

Kenneth Deer, secretary of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, said people in the community are very upset with the police decision to dismantle the Ontario blockade.

He said the provincial police force acted "irrationally" with negotiations between the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation and federal government ongoing.

Deer said a Kahnawake rail blockade will remain and the community will continue to have peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en chiefs.

Protests in Ottawa

Meanwhile, about 200 protesters marched through downtown Ottawa in support with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary leaders. They were escorted by police, who warned that traffic could be disrupted on and off all day.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Monday morning that the government remained committed to the reconciliation agenda.

"But at the same time, the impact of these rail disruptions is untenable. It can't continue," he said.

Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford praised the provincial force's handling of the rail disruptions including the Monday morning operation, saying it was clear officers had learned lessons from the violent 1995 clash in Ipperwash Provincial Park that resulted in the death of an Indigenous activist.

"I think any other approach, frankly, would have been unreasonable and disrespected the fact that, in a major conflict a number of years ago, a life was lost," he said. "Ontario turned the page on that approach today."

Trudeau spoke by phone Sunday with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Quebec Premier Francois Legault, and B.C.'s John Horgan to discuss the economic impacts of the blockades.

According to a statement from the PMO, Trudeau informed the premiers of measures being taken to ensure that critical needs are addressed, including propane, chemicals to treat drinking water, and essential agricultural products.

"We will remain in close contact with all provinces to address urgent needs as required, and we will continue to support co-ordinated efforts to find a resolution," the statement said.

Trudeau and the premiers also reiterated their commitment to resolving the situation peacefully.

Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Na'moks said Sunday that Trudeau's "antagonistic" speech had just the opposite effect.

"If the prime minister had not made that speech the Mohawks would have taken down everything," he said. "They were ready. We were on the phone."