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Day-long rail blockade ends peacefully near Portage la Prairie

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A day-long protest that defied a court injunction and halted road and rail traffic on Highway 16 near the Trans-Canada Highway ended after darkness fell on Wednesday.

A handful of protesters had blockaded the main CN rail line just west of Portage la Prairie, blocking a train and stopping trucks and cars on the highway known as the Yellowhead.

"We’re done, for the night," said former Long Plain First Nation chief Peter YellowQuill. Dressed in a light hoodie with only a thin wool tuque to ward off a -35 C wind chill, he said he and three other women at the blockade felt they’d gotten their message out. They wouldn’t say when another blockade could spring up.

The four joined in a group hug as snow started to fall, then kicked off the saplings laid over rail tracks and dispersed. About seven southbound tractor trailers stalled by the blockade on the Yellowhead revved their engines and geared up for the reopened highway, running a gauntlet of parked media vans and RCMP cruisers.

Earlier, CN had obtained an injunction declaring all blockades on its rail lines in Manitoba illegal and ordering aboriginal protesters to leave the property, but police did not arrest or evict any protesters.

RCMP officers, led by the local detachment inspector, talked briefly with protesters. Police then spoke among themselves and returned, telling the protesters they did not intend to arrest them. Instead, they would divert traffic away from the area.

"It’s clear we are defying the court order... it is null and void," said YellowQuill. He said the blockade is intended to send a message to the prime minister to honour the treaties or deal with blockades instead.

At about noon Wednesday, a CN freight train was forced to stop several hundred metres from several people who were on the tracks, at least one of them lying down across the rails.

"The train is basically hauling natural resources. It’s hauling billions and billions of dollars worth of First Nations wealth," said former Roseau River chief Terry Nelson. "It’s hauling oil, it’s hauling timber, it’s hauling gravel, it’s hauling everything basically that comes from the land.

"It’s our property if the treaties have been breached."

Nelson originally said he would remain at the protest for 72 hours but he left after only a few hours, saying the group intended to challenge the injunction.

Nelson defined people who are "not indigenous" as being "immigrants."

"We want to get the immigrants who came to our land to understand something. They’re living on our lands, they’re living on our resources, they’re living on our wealth," he said.

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The protest originally let motorists continue on Highway 16 but by 4 p.m. the blockade had extended across the highway, blocking traffic north and south on the Yellowhead.

Protesters linked hands and stood on the CN rail tracks. Behind them, an aboriginal man who gave his name as Dancing Wolf beat out a steady rhythm on a hand drum.

A century ago the track sliced through a large Ojibway settlement at this location, carving up the community that later formed the three First Nations of Long Plain, Sandy Bay and Swan Lake.

"This track divided us, split up our community," added YellowQuill. The blockade was held in support of the national Idle No More action but there was also local history behind it, he said. "This fight’s been going on since Aug. 4, 1871. The date marked the signing of Treaty One that opened up Western Canada for settlement."

The Highway 16 blockade was only one of many protests across the country, several of them organized in support of the Idle No More movement. Most were peaceful.

In Winnipeg, about 25 people rallied downtown at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard and then marched to the steps of the legislative building. The group from Berens River First Nation wanted their voices heard on issues affecting their band, like education and living conditions.

In The Pas, Facebook supporters circulated word of another rail blockade to be held by Pukatawagan First Nation supporters today.

The Idle No More movement started in December to protest federal omnibus Bill C-45 and other legislation aboriginal people say erodes treaty rights, threatens fisheries and protection of lakes and rivers in Canada.

CN spokesman Jim Feeny said the injunction protecting railways from blockades was obtained in Court of Queen’s Bench, adding its in force until Jan. 24 and it can be extended if necessary.

"We’re working with local authorities to determine the appropriate course of action," Feeny said.

— with files from Aldo Santin, Gabrielle Giroday


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Updated on Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 9:19 PM CST: adds video

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