Sunday, April 22, 2007

Next target chosen, Mohawks warn

Blocking rail line was 'first in a series of economic disruptions,' leader warns

staff reporter

The leader of an aboriginal blockade that paralyzed rail traffic between Toronto and Montreal for more than 30 hours promised this morning there will be more “economic disruptions” like the protest ended ahead of schedule.

Mohawk protesters gather around a palette fire in front of a bus that blocks the railway in Deseronto near Belleville, on Friday, April 20, 2007.

“Believe it or not, it was the first soft step of the campaign,” said Shawn Brant around 8 a.m., two hours after the group removed a school bus blocking the tracks. “We have identified three different targets, and we will escalate the degree of severity as is necessary.”

Those targets are the railway, provincial highways and the town of Deseronto, Brant said as he puffed on cigarettes at the gravel quarry that is the heart of the dispute

The next target has been selected already and plans for the action are being finalized, he said. They’ll continue the protests until the provincial government revokes a licence that allows gravel to be trucked away from the quarry, he said.

The protesters had said they’d stay at the blockade for 48 hours but decided to call it off early because some community members feared a violent conclusion to the protest, Brant said.

“Yesterday there was a series of exchanges. It was escalating into a standoff-type situation,” Brant said. “Some people were bringing concerns forward that this was to be a first step of a series of steps.

“The first stand wasn’t to be the last stand.”

The aboriginals have been in discussion with a federally appointed land-claims negotiator but Brant says the community is tired of talking while a company continues to operate at the 923-acre quarry.

“People in the community see it as a company removing the very land while we have people sitting at a table and discussing it,” Brant said. “We recognize there can be no meaningful negotiations while these things are happening.”

No arrests have been made at this point, said Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Kristine Rae.

“We’re pleased that it was a peaceful resolution.”

Federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jim Prentice said in an interview today that the blockade was mounted by a splinter group in the Mohawk community — against the will of its chief and council.

The blockade and others like it do nothing to speed such talks, he added.

“What they do is they contribute to an erosion of good will towards aboriginal people and land claims. And I don’t think that is in the interest of First Nation communities.”

Prentice says he understands the frustration of First Nations who’ve watched unsettled land claims balloon from about 250 cases in 1993 to more than 800 now.

“I’m aware of that, and that’s why I’ve been insistent that we need to change the process.”

Prentice has promised an action plan to accelerate settlement of specific claims. He said he will approach cabinet soon and present details this spring.

He added that related land-claim negotiations have been going well since January.

Friday also marked the one-year anniversary of a police raid on another aboriginal occupation — in the southwestern Ontario town of Caledonia, which has been marred by violence in the past.

Aboriginal groups have warned that a lack of political will to settle that claim had protesters considering further standoffs in Ontario.

The protesters in Deseronto want the province to revoke a licence that allows gravel to be trucked away from the quarry, operated by Thurlow Aggregates.

Today, the protesters offered no apologies to commuters and businesses who were inconvenienced by the blockade. Thousands of rail passengers were sent scrambling onto buses to reach their destinations while CN Rail shut down all its operations.

“I don’t think they should expect an apology,” said Brant, who suggested the blockade was prompted by government inaction on the Mohawk’s land claim.

CN Rail reported the tracks reopened this morning at around 10:15 a.m.

VIA Rail said it was expecting normal operations to resume late this afternoon or evening, once freight congestion had cleared.

“Even though we are very happy to announce that we are resuming our operations this afternoon, at the same time our customers that will be travelling with us are being advised that they should anticipate delays between two and three hours on their total trip time,” said spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky.

The protesters initially set up barricades at the gravel quarry for a day in November, and again in January. A third barricade went up last month, and the group warned at the time that the demonstration might be expanded to the town of Deseronto itself.

Condominiums are planned using gravel from the quarry for an area known as the Culbertson Land Tract, which is on a section of land given to the Six Nations in 1793. The Mohawks contend they never relinquished any part of it.