Protesters block trains, as police arrest 33 people opposing Canada gas pipeline

(Reuters) - Police in Canada arrested 33 indigenous rights protesters on Monday, ending the closure of Vancouver ports in British Columbia province by demonstrators opposed to construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, but movement of commodities and passenger trains was still disrupted by the ongoing rallies.

FILE PHOTO: First Nations members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory block train tracks servicing Via Rail, as part of a protest against British Columbia's Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Tyendinaga, Ontario, Canada February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Alex Filipe/File Photo

Protests have been ongoing since Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed an agreement to build the natural gas pipeline, saying they hold authority over traditional lands, not the elected indigenous band councils the provincial government had consulted.

The rallies are seen as a flashpoint for indigenous rights and reconciliation, and protests have flared up in recent weeks. Police have stepped up arrests which in turn have spurred supporters to block major rail tracks across Ontario and Quebec, forcing train cancellations and impacting movement of propane, grain, feedstocks and other commodities.

The protests have gained traction in social media with

#shutdowncanada among the top trending tags in Canada.

Monday’s arrests resulted from an injunction granted by a British Columbia court on Sunday to restore access to ports in the city. Port Metro Vancouver is one of Canada’s biggest ports and police say protesters received several requests and warnings to clear the area prior to the arrests.

The C$6.6 billion ($4.97 billion) pipeline, to be operated by TC Energy Corp, is set to move natural gas from northeastern British Columbia to the Pacific Coast, where the Royal Dutch Shell-led LNG Canada export facility is under construction. In December, private equity firm KKR & Co Inc and Alberta Investment Management Corp agreed to buy a 65% stake in Coastal GasLink Pipeline.

Some 28% of the 670-km (420-mile) route passes through Wet’suwet’en lands. Construction has continued along other parts of the pipeline route.

“I didn’t do it to block the port,” Savannah Minoose, a 24-year-old Cree and Metis woman who was detained at the Vancouver ports on Monday told Reuters after her release from jail. “It was my friends and family who were at the port last night, and I went to keep them safe ... I stand with Wet’suwet’en.”

Minoose said she hopes her arrest challenges people to think differently about Canada’s reputation as a peaceful, tolerant nation.

TC Energy was not immediately available for comment. But Coastal GasLink President David Pfeiffer said last week he was disappointed the hereditary chiefs had refused to meet with the company, and that a liaison’s efforts failed to resolve the situation.

Over the weekend, Canadian police arrested at least 20 people in northern British Columbia where indigenous protesters had blocked construction of the pipeline.

“I’ve been encouraged to see the law enforcement professionals dealing with this in an appropriate manner and we’ll continue to advocate for a lawful approach to dealing with issues of disagreement,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters in Calgary on Monday.

Canadian National Railway said protesters blocking rail tracks have affected service on two of its mainlines in Ontario and British Columbia, directly impacting nearly 200 trains.

Reporting by Denise Paglinawan and Moira Warburton in Toronto; Additional reporting David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Marguerita Choy