By Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
HAMILTON — The chaos that has engulfed Canada’s national rail system reached southern Ontario commuters on Tuesday as a fresh wave of blockades caused major delays and service suspensions across a popular regional train network.
The company that operates GO Transit said at least three blockades caused outright cancellations or significant slowdowns across all of its routes, which cover the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.
“These are all related to security incidents that are quickly evolving,” Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said, noting at least one of the two Toronto-area blockades she blamed for the disruptions cropped up and dissipated quickly. “It’s an extremely unfortunate, difficult situation for us to manage and for our customers to manage.”
Toronto police did not immediately comment on the most recent blockades erected in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northwestern British Columbia.
But in a tweet Tuesday evening, they said they responded to a protest in the city’s west end to keep the peace and limit disruption to “critical infrastructure.”
Video footage and photos on social media showed protesters around a rail line, but police would not confirm if it had been blocked.
Protesters in multiple provinces have been mounting rail and road blockades for nearly three weeks as a show of support for the chiefs, who oppose a natural gas pipeline project that cuts across their traditional territory and are engaged in contentious negotiations with the federal government over police presence on their land.
Smaller blockades also surfaced in Quebec and other parts of Ontario on Tuesday.
Delays on GO Transit began Monday afternoon when a blockade went up in Hamilton. The disruption along what the commuter service describes as its busiest route left thousands of passengers scrambling to make alternative travel arrangements.
The Hamilton Police Service said protesters left the blockade site in the city peacefully at around 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Another popular route running west of Toronto was suspended altogether. A route covering an area east of the city was briefly shut down before resuming with significant delays expected, Aikins said.
GO Train service in Hamilton and all points on the route to Niagara Falls, Ont., had been halted since Monday evening, said Aikins. Shuttle buses were running to help commuters, she said.
A group called Wet’suwet’en Strong: Hamilton in Solidarity, claimed responsibility for the blockade.
“It’s a new day, and we started it by burning the injunction delivered by CN rail!” the group wrote on Facebook.
“Remember why we’re out here; the violence the state has perpetrated towards Indigenous land defenders and their supporters, the forced removal and criminalization of Indigenous people from their lands.”
Concordia University professor Carolina Cambre had her travel delayed Tuesday due to the blockades, but she supports the demonstrators despite the hassle.
“I feel that there’s a greater story here to think about the historical injustice and inactivity or lack of appropriate response on behalf of the government,” she said while sitting at a GO Station near Hamilton. “The people who end up looking bad are the Canadian governments here, at all levels.”
Tom Nederpel cancelled plans to take transit into Toronto on Tuesday afternoon when he heard of the blockade, fearing he wouldn’t be able to take the train to return home to Dundas, Ont., later that night.
“They’re completely out of order,” he said. “They’re blocking railways that don’t belong to them. They’re blocking national railways, and businesses and commuters.”
Two other disruptions surfaced on Tuesday, one along a highway near the site of an ongoing land dispute in Caledonia, Ont., and the other along a stretch of rail in Sherbrooke, Que., about 150 kilometres east of Montreal.
Both blockades were being maintained by small groups of demonstraters, and Ontario Provincial Police said the protest along Highway 6 has kept the road closed since Monday.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the federal government was still hoping for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“That’s why I have been in regular communication with hereditary chiefs over the last week and I have communicated that we are available to meet in person any time.”
A leader of a B.C. First Nation that borders Wet’suwet’en territory said 14 people were arrested on Monday at a blockade outside New Hazelton, B.C.
Gitxsan Nation Hereditary Chief Spookwx said he and three other hereditary chiefs were taken into custody as RCMP removed a demonstration on the CN Rail main line in northern B.C.
A similar blockade was set up by the Gitxsan earlier this month and removed as a show of good faith on Feb. 13.
But Spookwx, who also goes by Norm Stephens, said the protest resumed because RCMP have not acted quickly enough to leave the Wet’suwet’en territory.
All 14 demonstrators have since been released by Mounties, he said.
A similar operation from the Ontario Provincial Police on Monday resulted in the arrest of 10 protesters who had been occupying a stretch of track in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont. They, too, were released with conditions.
Police said a smaller encampment remained in place on the CN-owned line on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Canadian Pacific Railway obtained an injunction Tuesday to end a blockade that began in early February in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, a spokeswoman said.
The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake called the move a “confrontational tactic,” adding it was developing plans to challenge the edict.
“We must make it clear to our own people that this injunction will not be executed on this Territory,” Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton said in a statement. “It is truly unfortunate that CP is taking this rash course of action, which will only add to the problems at hand.”
Quebec Premier Francois Legault stressed caution in ending the blockade in Kahnawake.
“Of course we have to be very, very careful,” he said in Montreal. “But at the same time, we’ve been in this situation for 20 days now, people in Quebec are suffering and I think we need to dismantle those barricades.”
— with files from Liam Casey in Toronto, Sidhartha Banerjee and Christopher Reynolds in Montreal and Elizabeth Leighton in Vancouver.