Native protest disrupts Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal rail service

Sat Jan 5, 2013 10:00pm EST

* No timetable for resumption of service

* Third disruption in a month by Idle No More native group

* Prime Minister Harper has agreed to Jan. 11 meeting

* Protests in support of northern Ontario chief on hunger strike

By Frank McGurty

TORONTO, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Aboriginal demonstrators disrupted passenger rail service on routes connecting Toronto with Ottawa and Montreal on Saturday, a day after Canada's prime minister agreed to meet with First Nations leaders to discuss grievances behind a growing native protest movement.

About 1,000 people traveling on four trains were stranded on VIA Rail routes in eastern Ontario when the railway stopped service in both directions Saturday evening, said a VIA Rail spokeswoman, Annie Marsolais. The passengers were completing their trips on buses provided by the railway.

VIA Rail could provide no firm timetable for the resumption of service, saying it was awaiting further information from local authorities about the protest, which was blocking tracks near Marysville, about 205 kilometers (127 miles) east of Toronto.

Authorities on the scene of the protest could not immediately be reached for comment.

It was at least the third major rail disruption in the past month by demonstrators from the loosely organized Idle No More movement. Protesters blocked a Canadian National Railway line in Sarnia, Ontario, for about two weeks until Wednesday, and there were shorter blockades elsewhere in the country, including one that delayed passenger trains between Montreal and Toronto for several hours last Sunday.

There were also scattered demonstrations on U.S.-Canadian border crossings in the Niagara region near Buffalo, New York, and in eastern Ontario, according to the media reports.

OLIVE BRANCH

Saturday's protests came even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended an olive branch to the angry aboriginal movement on Friday by agreeing to a Jan. 11 meeting to discuss social and economic issues.

The meeting is a key demand from Theresa Spence, a native chief from northern Ontario who has been on a hunger strike for 26 days on an island within sight of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.

Harper said next Friday's meeting would address economic development, aboriginal rights and the treaty relationship between the government and native groups. He described it as a follow-up to a meeting with aboriginal leaders last January as well as talks in November with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.

DISMAL CONDITIONS

Many of Canada's 1.2 million aboriginals live on reserves where conditions are often dismal, with high rates of poverty, addiction and suicide.

Treaties with Ottawa signed a century ago finance their health and education in a way that many experts say is now dysfunctional.

Idle No More was sparked by legislation that activists say Harper's Conservative government rushed through Parliament without proper consultation with native groups and which affects their land and treaty rights. But it has broadened into a complaint about conditions in general for native Canadians.

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