By Morgan Sharp
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Two more land defenders who took part in a Toronto rail blockade in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs last November have been charged or ticketed, with one saying Indigenous activists are being stalked and picked off one by one after an Indigenous protester was previously charged in connection with the action.
Gary Wassaykeesic and Miguel Avila-Velarde, both well-known advocates for Indigenous rights, say they will fight the charges as part of a broader challenge to Canada’s position on Indigenous sovereignty and reconciliation.
“How can you be charging First Nations with trespassing on their own territories, on their own land?” said Wassaykeesic, who is from the Mishkeegogamang First Nation north of Thunder Bay and has lived in Toronto for decades. “Are you telling us that you conquered us?”
On Nov. 21, a small group of people blocked the freight railway line at Dupont and Bartlett. The protest came days after heavily armed RCMP officers conducted a raid in northern British Columbia, where hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation continue to oppose the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their unceded territory.
Wassaykeesic says police followed him after a Sunday afternoon protest in early December related to the renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square. At a nearby food court, officers waited until he split from friends and left on a streetcar, he says, before six Ontario Provincial Police officers approached him, explained themselves, handcuffed him and took him by the streetcar to 52 Division a little further west.
He was charged with mischief and trespassing, a federal offence under the Railway Safety Act, and ordered to appear in court in March. In June last year, Ottawa raised the fines connected to the Railway Safety Act five-fold in an effort to deter rising incidents.
Wassaykeesic says police listed him as having no fixed address and no phone number, even though he provided the number he used to speak with Canada’s National Observer and an address in Parkdale.
For Avila-Velarde, the visit from authorities came on Dec. 8 near Bloor and Sherbourne, soon after he attended a Wet’suwet’en action led by a local Extinction Rebellion chapter.
He doesn’t know why it took 13 days for police to issue him with a ticket, but he also feels targeted and is currently awaiting a date for his challenge to be heard.
Protestors supporting the right of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to refuse Coastal GasLink’s construction have thrown rail transportation into chaos in recent years.
Meanwhile, Indigenous organizers have long faced extensive police and state surveillance that contrasts with the attention law enforcement has paid to the far right. Avila-Velarde says the hands-off police treatment of protesters at the convoy in Ottawa this past week illustrates a sharp contrast with the attention paid to those fighting for land rights, environmental well-being and social justice.
“We will be shot, we will be arrested. There’s no way Black or Indigenous people would have survived one day,” he said.
Morgan Sharp is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the CANADA’S NATIONAL OBSERVER. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada