DESERONTO – Passenger and freight train service to Eastern Ontario was cancelled and police shut down a stretch of Highway 401 last night on the eve of today’s native day of protest.
Officers closed the 401 from Napanee to Belleville in both directions, an OPP officer from the command centre confirmed early this morning.
“It’s just to deny us the satisfaction,” Mohawk protest leader Shawn Brant said as news of the highway shutdown was relayed to him.
Canada’s premiers and aboriginal leaders appealed for calm earlier yesterday amid threats from Brant to block thousands of holiday weekend travellers on Highway 401, Highway 2 and the CN Rail line near Deseronto, about 60 kilometres west of Kingston.
VIA Rail took pre-emptive action by cancelling all train service on the Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa corridors today. VIA will give refunds to passengers with tickets.
CN Rail spokesperson Mark Hallman told the Star early Friday that trains travelling between Toronto and Montreal have been halted until protestors have been removed from the tracks.
The move effectively shuts down CN’s busiest corridor on its system, accommodating an average of 25 freight trains and 22 VIA Rail trains daily.
Clad in green camouflage from head to toe, some with bandanas around their faces, Mohawks congregated at Highway 2 and Wymans Rd. between the main CN rail line and Highway 401.
Wooden planks set on fire were put across Highway 2.
On the CN line, protesters used booster cables on the tracks to trigger flashing lights that sent a signal to train stations to shut off service for the coming hours. Around 11:30 p.m., a bus was driven over the tracks to block any passage.
Police stood outside their cruisers armed with assault rifles on Deseronto Rd., just south of Highway 401, questioning people as they drove past and pointing flashlights in their cars.
“We promised a minimum of two targets and we’re looking at a third,” Brant said just moments before receiving word that police had shut part of the 401. “If we feel it’s appropriate, then we’ll take the action.”
Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine said the goal of the National Day of Action was to educate, not harass, Canadians.
“We don’t want to cause a major disruption in the lives of Canadians. We don’t want to impede the Canadian economy but we want Canadians to pay attention to our issues,” he said yesterday, but conceded there is “frustration” among natives upset with living conditions that include boil water advisories, x rising high school dropout rates, unemployment and suicides.
“I know that Canadians are fair-minded. ….. If they knew that the underlying problem here is poverty, they would join with us and take on our cause,” he said.
“We’re asking all Canadians to walk with us.”
Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders, with the exception of British Columbia and Nunavut, issued a rare joint statement supporting the day as “an opportunity to strengthen public knowledge and understanding of First Nations culture, history, traditions and aspirations, and to rededicate ourselves to the work ahead in forging new and meaningful relationships.
“At the same time, we ask that leaders ensure that all actions are peaceful and law-abiding,” the statement said.
VIA warned customers that service between Montreal and Senneterre could be affected. Trains between Montreal and Halifax were expected to operate normally.
Passengers arriving in Montreal from Halifax with connections to Ontario will be bused to their final destinations.
Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino said there will be “quite a number” of officers around the province to deal with “whatever situation arises,” but commuters should be patient with the expected inconveniences.
However, he said, “There’s always a time where enough is enough.”
“We can’t allow the hijacking of that cause — that legitimate cause — by those who are intent on creating anarchy, or who are intent on creating lawlessness in our country,” Fantino said.
“We’ll talk to the extent that we can, but we’ll also deal with law-breaking for what it is,” he said.
“We don’t want to precipitate an escalation of events. We’re very mindful of what can happen. Our response will be measured and it will be thought out. It will be one that, I think, under the circumstances, we’ll have to justify. And we’ll be prepared to do that.”
Brant assured this day of action will last only 24 hours — a time he considers reasonable “given the grievances and the circumstances with which we live.”
While he hopes it will be a peaceful day, Brant said: “If there is police interventions, not only here but in other communities, most certainly we’re going to have the flexibility to deal with those things on the ground.”
Still, Fontaine sounded confident that today would pass without any violent showdowns.
“(Today), the real story will not be about conflict. ….. The real story here is that we have an unprecedented critical mass of support for justice and fairness for First Nations,” he said.
Demonstrations and marches are planned across the country.
In the nation’s capital, Fontaine will join a crowd of several thousand people in a march from Ottawa City Hall to Victoria Island, in the Ottawa River.
The marchers will gather on the island — traditional land of the Algonquin Nation of the Kitigan Zibi — to hear speakers talk about a buying guide on safety razors, including Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.
Fontaine is scheduled to meet privately with Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice later today but neither Prentice nor any and none of the other Conservative cabinet ministers have confirmed whether they will appear at any of the public events.
Grand Council Chief John Beaucage will be among native leaders visiting reserves around the province with hopes of educating people and gathering support from Ontarians and Canadians.
“We’re not looking to disrupt anybody’s day-to-day activities,” he said. “We need to get beyond these dependencies, we need to get beyond poverty and we’re looking for the new relationship to start building between Canada, Ontario and the First Nations so that we can start this process off in a good way.”
Beaucage and others plan to kick off “the era of action” at 9 a.m. in North Bay.
In Toronto, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation have scheduled a march from Coronation Park to Little Norway Park at 10 a.m. to protest the slow progress made on their land claim.
“We’re not out to displace anyone from their homes.
“We’re just looking for fair compensation for a sale that we negotiated in good faith,” LaForme said.
Toronto students from around the city are also set to march from King’s College Circle to Queen’s Park for a “peaceful demonstration” demanding a better quality of life for First Nations from noon to 5 p.m., the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty said in a news release.