Canada is having a woke railway moment
What a moment Canadians find themselves in. A courageous movement of people have paralyzed a large portion of the national railway infrastructure and have caused what is frankly the most significant railway disruption in Canadian history. I study railway development in Northern Ontario and its impact on Indigenous communities. In short, I am in academic overdrive.
However, as my brain fires on all cylinders, I am left with far more questions than answers. I do not really study Indigenous activism, so on this side of the issue I am much less clear. When it comes to the railway, I am on stable ground. What follows is a selection of my thoughts, some of which are more complete than others. I think that all Canadians have a lot to think about right now. For many, once the blockades are lifted this will soon fade into memory, but this will stay with me longer.
For years, the Wet’suwet’en have been fighting to ensure that pipeline construction projects are conducted on their own terms. This happened, sort of. Elected band council chiefs mostly agreed to allow the Coastal GasLink pipeline plan to go ahead. But the elected chiefs are only representatives in the highly artificial and imposed structure of Indian Act Crown-Indigenous relations. Hereditary Chiefs, because the Wet’suwet’en are a people who have hereditary Chiefs, do not agree to allow pipeline development. This means that there is an internal conflict within their communities, let alone the tension with outside forces. For an excellent primer on this, see the First Peoples Law guide.
Many Wet’suwet’en people do not want the pipeline, so they set up camps to block construction access. Naturally, the pipeline consortium called the police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s involvement over the past two years has made things much worse. According to the Guardian, the RCMP authorized snipers to use whatever force was needed to subdue the occupation. For those of you unfamiliar with the RCMP, it borders on paramilitary – from its tactics to its ranking system. But that was a year ago. The catalyst for this series of protests was the RCMP decision to enforce an injunction to clear the Wet’suwet’en protest camps this month. This is what caused sympathy protests to take place across Canada, many choosing to target railway tracks.
Unless I am very much mistaken, shutting almost the entirety of VIA Rail (except Northern Manitoba and Sudbury-White River) along with pretty much all of the eastern portion of CN’s network, is the most significant disruption to Canada’s railway network ever. Labour disputes rarely shut down every train and normally there is a wind-down period first when trains are moved to yards. This time, trains are stuck on the main line. Passenger trains never reached their destinations. I think that CN’s decision to shut down is a practical response to the situation, but I am also sure that it is partly a pressure tactic to scare the government into action. From an Indigenous perspective, these blockades are a very visible form of resistance and a real statement against the colonial structure that continues to shape Canada. After all, the railway plays a central role in the history of Canadian colonialism. For examples, see Adele Perry’s amazing Twitter thread here or my discussion of Treaty 9 in Northern Ontario here.
The most significant blockade is at a location known as CN Marysville, east of Belleville, Ontario. I was actually there last summer, just watching the trains roll by. It is a very unassuming location, but it borders the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. If the boundaries on Google Maps are to be believed, the crossing is not actually on reserve land, but it is certainly on the traditional territory of the Tyendinaga community. This is CN’s main line between Toronto and Montreal and it carries all VIA passenger trains from Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa. Trains stopped moving on February 6, and haven’t moved since. Other blockades have sprung up across the country, disrupting railway operations in BC, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec (and probably elsewhere, this is a fast-moving story). The majority of these blockades have targeted CN tracks, but CP has also experienced disruptions, notably in Southern BC. While CN has received a provincial court injunction to clear the blockade at Marysville, the Ontario Provincial Police has yet to carry it out.
The hesitancy about clearing the blockade says many things. For one, it says that the place of railways in Canada is not what it once was. By allowing the blockade to stand, the pipeline development is being given the higher priority. While the national railway network was 19th-century Canada’s megaproject, the 20th and 21st centuries belong to pipelines. While many, including federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, are calling on the Justin Trudeau to step in, the reality is that Ottawa can’t do much. The injunction was provincial and therefore it is up to Doug Ford’s government to act. I am not surprised that the government is hesitating. The state has learned a lot since Oka, Ipperwash, and Caledonia. While the police default is still to prepare for an all-out war, the last thing Ontario or Canada wants is violence being broadcast by the world’s media, which is perhaps why the media are having such a hard time covering this.
More broadly, we are seeing a very different tactic. While Andrew Scheer calls for Indigenous people to “check their privilege” and essentially go back to being subjugated, Trudeau is letting the protest run its course. Meanwhile, Doug Ford isn’t doing much, which he is highly skilled at doing. If Scheer was Prime Minister, the blockades would be down and I suspect blood would have been shed by now. I’m not letting Trudeau off the hook here, the Crown-Indigenous relationship remains highly adversarial on his watch and the state continues to meddle unnecessarily in Indigenous lives, but at least he likes to talk rather than lead with his fists.
Railways matter, my work matters
One of the most difficult parts of doctoral study is feeling that you are accomplishing nothing. You spend years on things that most people will think are a waste of time. For the past week, my research topics have been front-page news in Canada. I study railway development. I study how this development affected Indigenous people. True, my work looks at Northern Ontario, but this is a region that never gets any media attention. In a sense, this makes understanding the role of the railway near James Bay even more pressing. The Tyendinaga defenders of Indigenous rights chose their location wisely. It is near enough for Toronto journalists to actually visit. No doubt this will fade from media attention and I will feel my work doesn’t matter more often than I think it does, but it is also hard not to think that something is happening right now. Settler people are connecting railways to colonialism in a way that few of us have before. This is exciting.