Police moved in to clear this indigenous protest blocking a key rail corridor near Belleville, Ontario, Canada. — AFP/VNA Photo
OTTAWA — Canadian police on Monday cleared out indigenous protesters blocking a key east-west rail artery for nearly three weeks to protest a pipeline, causing major disruptions to the economy.
The protesters, confronting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a political crisis, had mounted the blockade on a Canadian National Railway line east of Toronto and at other places in support of a small group fighting construction of a natural gas pipeline on indigenous lands in British Columbia.
Trudeau told parliament it was important to keep working on reconciliation with native peoples, even in tough situations.
Ontario Provincial Police began clearing the line on Monday morning after a midnight deadline for the blockade's removal passed unheeded.
Television footage showed dozens of police officers taking protesters away in handcuffs one by one, after a few minor scuffles broke out at the Tyendinaga Mohawk camp about 200 kilometres northeast of Toronto.
At least 10 people were detained, according to reports, which said they could be heard singing and banging the inside of a police van.
Hours after the police operation, freight rail service resumed in Tyendinaga in the evening for the first time since February 6, Canadian television showed.
Now, chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation behind the original protest movement were to meet in British Columbia to decide what their next step will be.
More protests and marches
Meanwhile, fresh protests in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs fighting the Coastal GasLink pipeline popped up in Saskatchewan province and at the Pacific port of Vancouver. Supporters also marched in Ottawa and Montreal.
Trudeau on Friday called the situation "unacceptable and untenable," and said attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff had failed.
His Liberal government has made reconciliation with indigenous peoples a priority.
But the disruptions to rail traffic - the backbone of Canada's transportation system, moving more than Can$250 billion (US$190 billion) in goods annually - led to supply shortages and job layoffs.
Under pressure to end the crisis, Trudeau sought to establish a dialogue with indigenous leaders but the overtures went unanswered.
He gave up, he said on Monday, "when it became clear that the indigenous (protesters) were not prepared to negotiate in good faith with us."
Trudeau holds emergency meeting
After emergency talks earlier with key ministers and officials, Trudeau's office said measures were being taken to cool tensions and restock depleted supplies. These included propane, chemicals to treat drinking water, and food transported by rail.
"The barricades had to come down because it was having a profound effect on the economy," Transport Minister Marc Garneau said as he left the meeting.
He assured, however, that the government remains committed "to sitting down and having a dialogue over the specific problems that exist at the moment with the Wet'suwet'en."
In parliament, opposition parties criticised Trudeau for not acting sooner to end the blockades.
"The problem is now there is a clear playbook for radical activists to follow and they know that the prime minister will do literally nothing as the economy is brought to its knees," Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said.
Until now, police had been reluctant to use force to dislodge the protesters.
Clashes between police and indigenous peoples in past decades had led to the deaths of a policeman in Oka, Quebec in 1990 and a protester being shot by police in Ipperwash Provincial Park in Ontario in 1995.
"All of these confrontations have been about land," said Kenneth Deer, a Kahnewake Mohawk in Quebec, explaining his community's support of the Wet'suwet'en.
"It's about solidarity among the indigenous people," he said, "because we have that common experience of being dispossessed and disempowered."
On Saturday, the Wet'suwet'en chiefs reiterated their demands that the pipeline construction be halted and federal police leave their ancestral lands as pre-conditions for negotiations.
Officials said the police have been pulled out. But construction of the Can$6.6 billion ($5 billion) pipeline to transport natural gas to a Pacific coast terminal for shipping to overseas markets continues.
The pipeline, which would run 670 kilometres from British Columbia's Dawson Creek area to Kitimat on the coast, received final regulatory approval last year. — AFP