First Nations activists held protests across Canada over the Canada Day holiday weekend in a National Day of Action against the Conservative government emphasizing land claims and other disputes. In Ontario, camouflage-clad Mohawks, some reportedly armed, blocked Highway 401 between Belleville and Napanee for more than 10 hours June 29 and also halted passenger and freight train service along the Canadaian National Railway’s busiest corridor. Rail service between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa was shut for several hours.
In Ottawa that day, some 1,000 people marched past the Parliament buildings in a march led by Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Speaking on an Ottawa River island that is claimed by an Algonquin tribe, Fontaine said the protest day was “about hope and giving our children a reason to live.” He told marchers that his 13-year-old niece had recently committed suicide, a disproportionately high cause of death for many young people on Canada’s native reserves.
Topping the list of grievances is a decision taken by the Conservatives shortly after taking power last year to cancel an agreement that would have provided $5 billion Canadian ($4.7 billion) for education, employment training and health care for First Nations. The government also eliminated financing for native language training programs and reversed Canada’s longstanding support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In May, the government announced a new system for settling native land claims that met with a favorable reaction from the Assembly of First Nations. But that did not change Fontaine’s overall view of the Conservatives and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “We will not be bought off, never, ever, by any government,” he said in Ottawa.
The Mohawks who blocked roads and rail lines had also shut down the Canadian National tracks in April. Shawn Brant, a leader from the Mohawk Tyendinaga reserve, is the subject of an arrest warrant from that episode.
Traffic was also snarmed in Montreal June 29, as Mohawks blocked a major bridge over the St. Lawrence for about 90 minutes. The Ontario police said a road in Muskoka, a popular resort north of Toronto, was also blocked by protesters for several hours, as was another road in a rural area southwest of Ottawa. (NYT, Toronto Star, June 30)
Shawn Brant remains at large but is resigned to spending time behind bars. “I think it’s not likely that I’m going to get out” on bail, he told the Globe & Mail, warning that “when I do get out, I’m going to be more pissed off.” Noted the newspaper: “In a leaked training manual, the Department of National Defence lists militant Mohawks as a major national-security threat, alongside groups such as Islamic Jihad.” (Globe & Mail, July 2)