A large number of Ontario Provincial Police officers moved in on one of two Mohawk encampments next to the rail lines in Tyendinaga shortly after 8 a.m. ET this morning.
Officers confronted fewer than a dozen people at the Wyman Road crossing on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory and carried out at least six arrests.
UPDATE: The OPP have confirmed they arrested ten people, and all ten were released on conditions but will face charges.
The police were acting to enforce an injunction granted to CN Rail by the Ontario Superior Court earlier this month.
Media were kept several hundred feet away by the OPP. Real People’s Media, a local independent outlet, was behind police lines and live-streamed the arrests.
Arrests at #Tyendinaga captured by Real Peoples Media. #cdnpoli #Aboriginal #Wetsuwenten pic.twitter.com/R6ueT4o4Ul— Pabàmàdiz (2705hex) (@karyn_pugliese) February 24, 2020
The police action came less than 72 hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated at a press conference on Friday that “the barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld.”
“Let me be clear, our resolve to pursue the reconciliation agenda remains as strong as ever.… Canadians want this. But hurting Canadian families from coast to coast to coast does nothing to advance the cause of reconciliation.”
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OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson told Ricochet that the force was unable to confirm the number of arrests as of 2:15 p.m. ET. Dickson also clarified that a second encampment on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory is not obstructing the railway and no enforcement action is foreseen there.
He said the OPP kept journalists away from the area for public safety reasons.
“We kept the media back to what we considered to be a safe distance for the safety of members of media and for officer safety. We did not exclude media from that scene for any other reason.”
“We have no guarantees in any scenario that someone is not armed,” Dickson replied when asked about the safety concerns involved in enforcing an injunction against unarmed people.
In response to a question about how restricted media access was justified in light of the precedent established in the Justin Brake case, which found that media have the right to report freely from injunction sites, Dickson stated that media who disagreed with the police decision could contact the OPP’s legal department and were welcome to hire a lawyer. He also said he could not comment on why the distance required to maintain public safety in this situation was so much greater than what police enforce in cities when making arrests at protests.
For Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, the concern for public safety is unconvincing.
“There was an independent media crew filming very closely and they seemed perfectly safe. The tape they recorded was extremely important to the public and seems to have gone viral. It had the only sound of the conversation and arrests.”
Pugliese said the police kept media too far away.
“For years journalists have been able to be much closer, where we could see and hear what is happening. So I am certain police can do better for the public, as they have in the past. At least this is an improvement over the disastrous example set over the last three weeks by the B.C. RCMP at Wetʼsuwetʼen.”
‘We are doing this for the future’
“I pray that no one was injured in the violent arrests this morning,” said Freda Huson, spokesperson for the Unist’ot’en house, which is part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, in a video message posted to Facebook. “Our hearts are heavy as they were when we were arrested and removed off our lands.”
Pointing out that the Mohawk encampment was not in fact blocking the railway but had set up camp beside it, Huson asked why six people had been arrested.
“Canada is illegally removing us off our lands in the name of profits. They continue to break even their own Canadian laws and international laws, because these lands are unceded. We’ve never given it over to anybody. We thank our neighbours for standing up with us.”
“It’s heartbreaking to watch. People sit idle. People need to speak up. People have power. You have the power to speak up. Your voice is important. Your voice needs to be heard. Your voice is the voice for your children, for your grandchildren and for those yet unborn. We are doing this for the future.”
The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs had requested that Trudeau and B.C. premier John Horgan meet with them, on the condition that the RCMP and Coastal GasLink withdraw from their territory to allow for negotiations “without duress.”
Similarly, the Mohawk had agreed with Marc Miller, federal minister of Indigenous services, that they would leave the area once they got confirmation that the RCMP had withdrawn from Wet’suwet’en territory.
On Friday the RCMP reportedly “temporarily” closed their mobile command post on the remote Morice Forest Service Road in northwestern B.C., the location of a series of police raids earlier this month, but they continued to patrol the area. At the time that OPP officers moved in on the Tyendinaga encampment, RCMP were reported to be maintaining a heavy presence on the road.
A historic meeting
The OPP raid came just days after several Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and leaders, including Huson, had travelled to Ontario to meet with the Mohawk of Tyendinaga.
Indigenous observers have described the meeting as historic, a rare direct meeting between Indigenous Nations from different parts of the country.
At those meetings the Mohawk leaders committed to hold their position until the RCMP was confirmed to have withdrawn from the Morice Forest Service Road.
Fundamentally, for the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous Peoples like the Mohawk of Tyendinaga, the issue is not just the Coastal GasLink pipeline. It’s about sovereignty and control over their territory, and their right to say no when asked to consent to resource projects that threaten their lands.
For 150 years, Canada’s response to the spectre of Indigenous Peoples asserting their rights and title has been to send in the police or the army.
Indigenous Nations across the land are responding to the treatment of the Wet’suwet’en because it provides a grim glimpse of how they may be dealt with in future.
Hundreds joined a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa this afternoon, responding to the OPP’s arrests.
“We demand that British Columbia and Canada recognize and uphold the authority of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs,” said Sophia, an Indigenous youth leader, in a press release issued by rally organizers. “There has been no free, prior, and informed consent given, and British Columbia, Canada, the RCMP, and Coastal Gas Link must respect UNDRIP and the rights of Wet’suwet’en hereditary leadership.”
In the era of reconciliation
Even in the era of reconciliation, and despite B.C.’s move to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a series of Supreme Court decisions reaffirming Indigenous rights and title, the government’s response remains largely the same as it has been anytime corporate interests are threatened.
In the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, Canada’s Supreme Court recognized the Wet’suwet’en system of governance and the hereditary chiefs’ role as the representatives of their people when it comes to their traditional territory.
But that decision has not been acted upon, and governments have continued to negotiate with band councils, which have a say only over their small reserve allotments.
As Chantelle Bellrichard reported for the CBC on Friday, a now-retired lead negotiator for British Columbia at the Wet'suwet'en treaty table has described this approach as the government “picking their Indians.”
“I spent seven years negotiating Wet’suwet’en rights and title on behalf of the provincial Crown and both the provincial and federal governments had agreed the Office of the Wet’suwet’en — that group representing the hereditary chiefs — had the authority to negotiate the rights and title of the Wet’suwet’en people at the treaty table,” said Brian Domney.