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Tensions mount in St-Lambert before protesters end blockade peacefully – Montreal Gazette

February 21st, 2020

The atmosphere among protesters heated up at about 9 p.m. Friday with the arrival of new demonstrators, who chanted anti-police slogans.

In the end, most of the protesters in St-Lambert left quietly.

Activists at the blockade on the CN Rail tracks had begun to peacefully dismantle their camp Friday evening when tensions ratcheted up with the arrival of new demonstrators, who began chanting anti-police slogans.

More than 50 demonstrators gathered around 9 p.m. to support the protesters who had camped there since Wednesday.

“To all those who care about Aboriginal ancestral sovereignties, we must act now. Answer the call of the hereditary chiefs. Block by all means bridges, ports, roads and rails,” the protesters said in a press briefing at about 10 p.m., before leaving the blockade.

Faced with a large deployment of riot police, the protesters had started packing up at around 7:30 p.m. They carried equipment such as sleeping bags, pots, propane tanks and a wood stove to the perimeter erected by Longueuil police.

However, the situation became tense between the newcomers and police. Dozens of protesters started chanting slogans such as: “Everyone hates the police.”

Tempers flared when some demonstrators tried to cross the police perimeter. Dozens of officers were brought in to monitor the crowd.

The Canadian Press observed constant communication between activists and police during the evening.

The first sign of police mobilization to dislodge the protesters came in the afternoon, shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for the railway blockade to be dismantled.

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At a news conference in Ottawa, Trudeau asked that injunctions be respected, but did not specify when or how. He also could not say how he could assure there would be no violence, relying on the professionalism of the police forces who will have to decide if they intervene and when.

Premier François Legault also said Friday afternoon it was up to police to decide when and how they would enforce an injunction to clear the St-Lambert railway tracks of protesters.

While Legault said he understood some citizens in the area were frustrated with the delay, he added they should not seek confrontations.

Longueuil police allow protesters to leave with their personal belongings Friday evening after having blocked the CN Rail lines in St-Lambert.

Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

“I expect the police to do their work,” he told reporters in Montreal. “The ball is in their court. It’s up to them to do their work. It’s up to them to decide when and how they do it.”

After meeting with protesters twice Friday afternoon, police negotiators pulled out of camp and tactical units moved in. First, they cleared reporters from the front lines and sealed off the street leading to the rail crossing. Then eight armoured officers blocked the north side of the tracks, tightening ranks around the blockade.

By dusk, the protesters were nearly surrounded and police negotiators moved in once more to try to bring an end to the standoff. But the protesters dug in around their fire, in their tent and in folding chairs only a few meters from police.

Darkness settled onto the icy tracks and with it the biting February air.

Then, around 7:30 p.m., they started to disperse.

Protesters march to show solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in Montreal on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

Earlier Friday afternoon, hundreds of people took part in a protest in downtown Montreal organized by Idle No More Quebec, in support of the rail blockades.

In his demand to end the blockades, Legault said the protests are costing the Quebec economy $100 million a day.

He said Quebec’s inventory of propane, a key product for farmers in cold weather, is down to a “couple of days.”

“I can understand that citizens are a little bit angry, that people have lost their jobs in Quebec because of these blockades. But I ask citizens to be prudent and let the police do their work.”

He repeated he hoped for an orderly and peaceful settlement of the crisis.

“I think it’s important that people understand the law has to be respected, and I am confident the people will be able to convince people blocking the rail to stop doing that rapidly.

“People have the right to demonstrate, they have a right to say they do not agree with a project in British Columbia, but it cannot mean Quebec workers are penalized.”

Tensions in St-Lambert

During the day on Friday, a few residents shouted down protesters, but mostly police and media stood by and waited.

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One St-Lambert resident confronted protesters, in a tirade also directed at immigrants and Indigenous Peoples. Around noon, he tried to single-handedly dismantle the barricade. He was rebuffed by a handful of masked protesters who pleaded with him to calm down.

Police carted him off in an unmarked car, but the scene remained tense.

Business owner Denis Bisson demanded the protesters explain themselves. His employees depend on raw materials from Eastern Canada to be shipped via rail to his mill in the Laurentians. It would cost him four times more to have the materials brought in on a flatbed truck, he said.

“I am sympathetic — these protesters could be my own kids,” Bisson said. “But they’re hurting the wrong people. They’re hurting working families.”

One of the few unmasked protesters is Jean-Yves Lessard, who said he’s homeless and stands with his “brothers and sisters” in resisting the pipeline.

“Don’t look at us, look at Trudeau and those bandits in his cabinet,” he said. “He needs to sit down with the chiefs and fix this on the f—ing double.”

Though they’re flying the Iroquois Confederacy flag over the tracks, none of the protesters in St-Lambert have claimed to represent the Mohawks or any Indigenous nation.

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They say they are acting in solidarity with other blockades across Canada opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation near Houston, B.C.

One of those key protests is also in Quebec, at Kahnawake, where activists continue to block a Canadian Pacific rail line.

On Thursday, Kahnawake Grand Chief Joe Norton had harsh words for Legault’s call for police intervention.

“He has to be brought onto the carpet for his approach, in (advocating for the use of) armed force, demanding that there be a co-ordinated effort between police forces to set in motion an action that would be disastrous,” Norton said in an interview.

But Legault said Thursday the government feels having the police move in is legitimate because, unlike Kahnawake, the land in question is not considered Indigenous territory.

“Yes, there is a difference,” Legault said. “It is land that belongs to Quebec, it is not land that belongs to Indigenous Peoples.”

Asked to elaborate on the difference, Legault said: “In Kahnawake, technically it is the Peacekeepers who are responsible for applying the law, it is Indigenous lands,” Legault said. “Yes, there is a difference between the two.”

Sidhartha Banerjee and Stéphane Blais of Canadian Press contributed to this report.


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