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Clock ticking on planned rail blockade

Lyndenn Behm
First Perspective:
21 June, 2006

[SISIS note: The following article is provided for reference only. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

The clock is ticking toward what could become test of mettle - and of metal.

With a railway blockade set for June 29, the key will be whether First Nations leaders and activists will have the mettle - the sheer courage - to close down the metal railway tracks, which represent the reason why the Canadian government signed treaties in the first place.

On May 31 delegates to an Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) conference showed overwhelming support for a resolution to stop rail traffic for 24 hours.

It is unclear how many chiefs, or First Nations, will actively participate in the blockade or whether the vast majority will simply see their resolution as a statement of moral support for those who take action.

Dick Hill, one of the people involved in the protest at Caledonia, said he is totally in favour of the Manitoba action and he sees it helping other First Nations. He also said that people around the world will notice if Manitoba shuts down rail traffic for a day. He also said this show of strength may also help the Six Nations Mohawks who are fighting the land development project in Caledonia.

"I don't think it can hurt anyway," he said.

Chief Terry Nelson of the Roseau River First Nation First Nations must show their strength by proving they have the power to have an impact on the Canadian economy. Blocking a road simply inconveniences people, but stopping resource shipments would have a much bigger impact.

The resolution simply called upon Manitoba's First Nations to support a blockade, but it did not specify what type of action each First Nation should take. When introducing the resolution Nelson said that Roseau River intended to go ahead with the blockade regardless of whether other AMC chiefs supported the action.

"Our people (Canadian First Nations people) need to see us doing something," Nelson told the chiefs. Later, in an interview, he said resource revenue is an important source of wealth to Canada.

"Blockading a road where people drive does not do a lot... A two-page article in the Free Press has no real impact," he said. On May 30 AMC placed a two-page advertisement in the front section of the Winnipeg Free Press outlining its concerns on a wide range of issues.

One of the motion's most vocal supporters of the resolution was Chief Morris Shannacappo of the Rolling River First Nation.

"I will stand up on those railway tracks with my brother (Chief Nelson)," he said. "...I will ask our people in West Region (the tribal council that Rolling River belongs to) to ensure that no more of our resources leave Canada for 24 hours."

Although the resolution didn't specify what action each First Nation must take, after the Wednesday session Nelson said six chiefs had already told him they would actively join in the blockades. He also said support would be sought from outside of Manitoba. Both national railways pass through Manitoba and there are also lines to the United States and the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay. Rail tracks pass near some First Nations but generally not through First Nation property.

The blockade would protest slow movement or inaction by the treaties which provided the Canadian government with access to land and made provisions for the division of resources, most of which have been shipped to a large extent by rail.

The threat of action has gathered considerable public attention and in mid-June the Brandon Sun, the largest daily newspaper outside of Winnipeg, called on RCMP in the province to be more aggressive than police have been at Caledonia and arrest First Nation protestors if they attempt to block rail traffic.

Some activists who aren't involved with chiefs' organizations have also hinted that they may protest.

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