Tensions mount as Quebec protesters maintain rail blockade despite injunction

ST-LAMBERT, Que. — Tensions were mounting Friday as more than two dozen protesters maintained a railway blockade south of Montreal and Quebec’s premier called for rapid enforcement of an injunction ordering that the site be cleared.

Four municipal police officers met with the protesters Friday afternoon at their encampment next to Canadian National Railway tracks in St-Lambert, Que., but they would not disclose what was discussed.

The protesters say they are blocking the rail lines in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in British Columbia. Their actions have interrupted freight traffic as well as passenger service for suburban commuters and for Via Rail travellers between Montreal and Quebec City.

The Wet’suwet’en’s hereditary chiefs oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that would carry natural gas to the B.C. coast. But others in the community support the project, including 20 First Nations bands along the route that have signed agreements with the company.

Countrywide protests and blockades have followed a move by the RCMP to enforce a court injunction this month against the hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who had been obstructing an access road to a Coastal GasLink work site.

Jean-Yves Lessard, a man decked out in high-visibility apparel who joined the protesters on Friday morning, blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.

“If they had done what they needed to at the beginning, people wouldn’t be here,” he fumed to reporters.

“Sadly, it’s bad for the economy and business, but it’s not them you should be angry with. Tell Trudeau to go and sit down with the hereditary chiefs.”

Premier Francois Legault told reporters he will leave it to police to enforce the injunction, but he hopes the blockade will be removed “rapidly.”

“We need these tracks for transporting cargo, to avoid job losses, to avoid losses for companies,” he said. ”The law has to be respected, and obviously I hope it is done in an orderly fashion.”

The premier estimated the losses to the provincial economy because of the rail blockades at up to $100 million dollars a day.

Denis Bisson, who owns a company north of Montreal selling slate flooring and countertops, said he depends on the rail line to supply his business with raw materials from a quarry in Nova Scotia. Switching to flatbed trucks would quadruple the cost per load, he said.

“I’m afraid it’s going to last two or three weeks, and I’m beginning to be out of stock in my yard,” he said, holding a sign that read in French “hostage for one day or every day?!”

A protester told him they were standing up for Indigenous rights and the environment.

“But they are hitting people that have nothing to do with that,” Bisson said. “They’re making people pay for something that we’re not involved in.”

The St-Lambert protesters have said they will continue to block the railway until the RCMP leave the Wet’suwet’en territory. But their motivations to camp out in the freezing cold are also tied to the fight against climate change.

“Natural gas isn’t a transition energy,” one protester said.

The injunction granted to CN Thursday by Superior Court Justice France Dulude authorizes “any police services or peace officers” to assist the company in executing the order in St-Lambert.

But with a barrel fire going Friday and supporters bringing coffee and muffins, the protesters didn’t seem ready to leave. Instead they reinforced mounds of snow with wooden slats and were involved in scuffles with one rowdy counter-protester unhappy with the blockade.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2020.

— With files from Stephane Blais

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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