A group of protesters blocking road and rail traffic on Highway 16 at the Trans-Canada Highway left the site early Wednesday evening.
Tensions flared late Wednesday afternoon as RCMP officers confronted a handful of protesters who vowed to remain at a standoff blocking road and rail traffic on Highway 16 at the Trans Canada Highway west of Portage la Prairie.
The protest, organized by several aboriginal leaders including former Roseau River First Nation chief Terry Nelson, blocked a CN freight train and some traffic on Highway 16, also known as the Yellowhead.
Around noon the train was forced to stop several hundred metres before a group of protesters who took to the tracks that cross the Yellowhead.
Earlier in the day Nelson said about 20 people had attended the protest, and he expected more later in the day.
By late afternoon, three women and Peter Yellowquill, former chief of the Long Plain First Nation, said they intended to keep the rail blockade in place indefinitely -- but around 6 p.m. they left the area without incident around.
Wednesday afternoon CN Rail obtained an injunction declaring all blockades on its rail lines in Manitoba illegal and ordering aboriginal protesters to leave the property, but officials would not say if the company requested police evict the protesters from the blockade.
Spokesman Jim Feeny said the injunction was obtained in Court of Queen’s Bench, adding it’s 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.
Injunction 'null and void': protester
Papers reported to be related to the court injunction were kicked onto the the tracks by protesters, who said they were prepared to be arrested.
"It's clear we are defying the court order... it is null and void," said Yellowquill. He said the blockade was intended to send a message to the Prime Minister to honour the treaties or deal with blockades instead.
"We support the treaty law and we want to point out to Canadians that it's treaty law that being broken."
RCMP officers, led by the local detachment inspector, talked briefly with protesters. They 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.
One truck driver, who gave his name as Dennis, expressed mixed feelings about the blockade.
"I thought they were blocking the trains, not us," he said. Hauling a semi-trailer full of corn to deliver to Saskatchewan, he shrugged when asked if he was upset with the delay.
"They have their rights," the trucker said. Minutes later he reversed his truck and backed off, heading to Saskatchewan on the Trans-Canada Highway rather than the Yellowhead.
Blockade to last 'as long as it takes'
Former Roseau River chief Terry Nelson left the protest site late in the afternoon, saying the group intended to challenge the injunction.
"The train is basically hauling natural resources. It’s hauling billions and billions of dollars worth of First nations wealth," said Nelson, a vice-chairman of the American Indian Movement. "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 said the plan to stop the train was to last "as long as it takes for Canadians to come to their senses. He himself had earlier planned to remain at the site for at least 72 hours, but left the site late Wednesday afternoon, saying the group would 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.
"One of the things that really angers us is that in all of the websites, and all of the comments made by immigrant Canadians, is that we live off their good graces, not the Canadian taxpayer," said Nelson. "We’re here to tell them that (their) lifestyle is subsidized by our lands and our wealth, and our natural resources, so we’re stopping the natural resources from moving."
Blockade intended to step up pressure on government
One organizer, Kylo Prince, said participants gathered this morning at the Red Sun Gas Bar on Highway 6, just off the Perimeter, and headed west to the rail crossings by noon, where they were met by others who are waiting for them.
Prince said this morning’s blockade is part of a national campaign and the last peaceful attempt to pressure the Harper government to withdraw the controversial Bill C-45, adding if this fails violent actions will take place.
Prince, from the Long Plain First Nation, said the Portage blockade has been organized by the American Indian Movement, adding that the street demonstrations organized by the Idle No More group have only angered the rest of society and have had little impact.
"AIM has been around a lot longer than Idle No More," Prince said. "I don’t think the government cares if we’re dancing in the streets."
Prince said the decision to block the railroad is an attempt to step up the pressure.
"If we block rail lines, that affects corporations and we’ll interrupt their dollars," he said.
Manitoba protests among many across Canada
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg this morning about 25 people rallied downtown at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard and then marched to the steps of the Legislature. The group, from Berens River First Nation, wanted their voices heard on issues affecting their band, like education and healthy living conditions.
In The Pas, Facebook supporters circulated word of another rail blockade to be held by Pukatawagan First Nation supporters today.
The Manitoba protests were among many across the country today, several of them organized in support of the Idle No More movement. Most were peaceful.
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.
Bill C-45, introduced in the Commons in October, amends legislation in 64 other acts and has since passed and received royal assent. Native groups believe the series of changes proposed in the legislation erode indigenous rights, specifically portions of the act that apply to the Indian Act, the Navigation Protection Act, and the Environmental Assessment Act.