RCMP officers at the native blockade of Highway 16 and the CN Rail line were armed with a court injunction when they asked protesters to walk away on Wednesday.
But police didn't arrest anyone. Instead, CN halted rail traffic on the line. The RCMP kept the court papers in their pocket and helped the dozen protesters by blocking road traffic until the remaining small group of protesters called it a night.
Organizers were emboldened, claiming a victory over police and CN because their group was not arrested.
Similar protest scenarios were played out across the country as part of a national day of protest over government legislation and treaty violations. In Winnipeg, dozens of protesters from the Berens River First Nation marched down Memorial Boulevard to the steps of the legislature. Another group of natives from the Shoal Lake area blocked the Trans-Canada Highway near the Manitoba-Ontario border during the afternoon, backing up traffic in both directions.
"These are difficult situations for the police," said Michael Weinrath, head of the criminal justice department at the University of Winnipeg, who said police are confronted by open defiance of the law yet also realize there is potential for more violence in enforcing the law.
"If you look at the history of these types of efforts to disrupt travel and transportation, when the police have made efforts to arrest, those situations have sometimes escalated and sometimes there are allegations of excessive use of force."
A spokesman for the Winnipeg Police Service declined to answer questions about their policing strategy in dealing with the native protesters.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Kolody said the RCMP prefer dialogue over force with protest organizers, adding officers can quickly deal with any situation that develops at a demonstration and charges can always be laid after the fact.
Former Winnipeg police deputy chief Menno Zacharias said police take a risk when they decide which laws to enforce.
"Any time police start to pick and choose which court orders they will obey or enforce based on political expediency, they are treading on dangerous ground, not only ethically but also legally," Zacharias, a 34-year veteran of the WPS, said.
Graham Starmer, president and CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, said rail and road blockades have been used by native leaders for years as a tactic to pressure government to deal with their concerns. Starmer said such tactics impose a price on the economy, but added governments need to take responsibility to deal with native concerns before the damage becomes serious.
Police actions could inflame a situation, Starmer said, adding arrests could draw unnecessary attention or lead to escalating violence.
Weinrath said the RCMP on Highway 16 and Winnipeg police on Memorial Boulevard decided the best course of action was no action. The bitterly cold weather may have been a factor, but in the end, the protesters walked away.
"At this point in time, it looks like it might have been a good decision by police to wait and approach it that way," Weinrath said.
But not everyone thinks the hands-off approach by police is in society's best interest. An Ontario judge was so upset with police who failed to enforce an injunction he had given to CN Rail last weekend that the judge took the rare step of voicing his displeasure publicly.
"No person in Canada stands above or outside of the law," Ontario Superior Court Justice David Brown said when the Ontario Provincial Police opted to ignore the injunction Brown gave to remove a group of native protesters blocking CN Rail traffic near Kingston, Ont.
Weinrath said while blockades and protests cause inconvenience, the damage from the Idle No More protests has been minimal.
"In Canadian society, the right to demonstrate and to voice your concerns within reason, people will allow a certain amount of political protest in this country," Weinrath said.
However, he added attitudes will change if protesters make good on threats to bring the economy to a halt.
"One train in the grand scheme of things isn't going to make much of a difference, but if we see more consistent and persistent efforts at disruption, that's when it's going to become more difficult."
-- with files from The Canadian Press
Balancing rights with court orders
Statement from RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Kolody, officer in charge of criminal operations in Manitoba, in response to why native protesters were not arrested or charged for Wednesday's Highway 16 rail and road blockade despite a court-ordered injunction ruling the demonstration illegal.
-- "As the provincial police force in the Province of Manitoba, the RCMP's objective is to balance the right (charter) to peaceful demonstration as well as the safety of officers, the public, and demonstrators involved.
-- In managing any type of demonstration, the RCMP will always take a measured response where open dialogue with organizers is favoured and the use of force is always a last resort.
-- The RCMP has extensive experience in planning security measures. Our personnel are appropriately trained to apply these measures. We are in a constant state of preparedness and are able to deal quickly with whatever situation arises.
-- This by no means precludes the RCMP from investigating any unlawful acts and laying charges when appropriate after the event.
-- In Manitoba, there have been no reports of injuries by officers, the public or the demonstrators involved relating to any recent demonstrations."