An injunction was ordered for the Pat Bay Highway Wednesday afternoon where about 100 people set up a blockade in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The group shut down the major artery at Mount Newton Cross Road while police rerouted traffic.
The demonstration, which included members from all four Peninsula First Nations – Pauquachin, Tsawout, Tsartlip and Tseycum – is among many cropping up across Canada and shutting down railways and major intersections in an act of solidarity with Wet’suwet’en clan chiefs, who claim authority over the northern nation’s expansive territory.
The organizers of the highway blockade aimed to raise awareness about several issues, including the effects of natural resource developments on the natural environment, Indigenous land rights, and reconciliation between First Nations and non-First Nations in Canada.
“We’re not here to inconvenience people, we’re here to get a message across to our governments and to close-minded people alike,” said Brian Sampson of Tsartlip First Nation. “We’re just here to support the Wet’suwet’en nation and let them know they’re not standing alone.”
Sampson said the roadblock was announced ahead of time to avoid further hostility.
“I mean you look at, across Canada … there’s people driving through these barricades,” he said.
About 80 people have set up a blockade on the Pat Bay Highway in support of #Wetsuweten . Read the story here: https://t.co/Yz4vnbFWy4. #YYJTraffic #YYJ @wolfgang_depner @PeninsulaNews pic.twitter.com/bcbxJiB9MT
— Nina Grossman (@NinaGrossman) February 26, 2020
A spokesperson for the protesters told Const. Matt Ball of Central Saanich Police they planned to be on site until 5 p.m. Ball said police started to reroute traffic when it became apparent that the protest would start. “It helps reduce conflicts between protesters and motorists,” he said.
The injunction, ordered by the B.C. Attorney General, the Province of B.C. and the B.C. Transportation Financing Authority, said anyone impeding the movement of vehicles on Highway 17 would be subject to arrest by police. There were no reports of any arrests.
Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and the Gulf Islands, said the number of demonstrations point to an emerging Canadian crisis.
“It won’t end by trying to ignore it into non-existence,” he said, adding that the relationship between the Crown and Canada’s Indigenous people is in “turmoil.”
“From my perspective everybody needs to take a step back and needs to create a different kind of dialogue.”
Olsen said the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations appears to go through this kind of conflict every decade or so, and calls this crisis predictable “in light of failure by governments to ignore past appeals.”
The choice by protesters to cut off traffic along Highway 17 appeared strategic given its regional significance.
A 2014 study by Urban Systems prepared for the ministry describes the highway as the “gateway to the Capital Region on Vancouver Island, accommodating the movement of people, goods and services externally from the BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay and the Victoria International Airport to the Victoria region and other areas of the Island.”
According to the report, daily traffic volumes range anywhere from almost 15,000 vehicles per day to over 60,000 vehicles per day from the north to south segments of the corridor.
In short, little, if anything moves if something interrupts Highway 17.
Hours before the blockade was set up, Sgt. Paul Brailey of Central Saanich Police said “dozens” of police officers from multiple jurisdictions, including local RCMP, would be in action to deal with crowd management and traffic.
Brailey urged travellers to leave for their Peninsula destinations early or avoid the area entirely.
There is a planned protest in support of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs at Hwy 17 at Mt Newton X Rd from 2-5pm on Feb 26. Police will be on site. Heavy congestion on all through roads and in community cores. Plan extra time for travel. #csaan #yyjtraffic
— CS Police Service (@cspoliceservice) February 26, 2020
While Brailey acknowledged the right of protesters to say their piece, he also questioned its efficacy. If protesters wanted to get the public’s attention, they would protest along the side of the highway, not block it, he said.
“The protesters are trying to make a point and I am not so sure that if they block highways and inconvenience thousands and thousands and thousands of people, that they are going to gain traction with their points within [Greater Victoria] and all of B.C.,” he said.
The blockade ended around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and unfolded without any major incidents, except towards the end when a man interrupted proceedings.
“We need law and order,” he said. Protesters then confronted the man, with police quickly separating the two sides.
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