At the height of Idle No More protests, members of Aamjiwanang First Nation blocked a rail line into Sarnia, Ontario’s “Chemical Valley,” so-called for the petrochemical industry there.
Now, blockader Ron Plain, 51, has been ordered by a judge to pay CN railway $16,000 in fines for the 13-day protest that captured the country’s attention and was one of the first signs of the movement’s potential impact. A judge refused CN’s demand for $50,000 from Plain.
Despite lacking the funds to pay the bill personally, he has vowed to continue struggling for his people’s rights.
“Keep fighting,” said the environmental analyst. “Keep moving forward.
“Nothing you gain is easy. The message from it all, that my grandfather and my father taught me, is if you want something you’re going to have to sacrifice some things for it.”
Plain and supporters have launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign, and are confident they can raise the fine before the end of September.
“We’re going to pay this fine off, and it’s going to be a motivation for activists right across this country,” he said. “The contributions are coming in. We know that by the end of September we’ll be able to hand the court that money.
“They’re trying to scare us. That’s the point of everything they’ve done. They’ve hit me with such a fine personally, that they endanger my house and my car, because CN could show up today with a sheriff and a letter demanding the money. I don’t have the money, so they could put liens on my property.”
The blockade began at the peak of the Idle No More movement, which swept across North America last winter, drawing attention to broken treaty promises, Indigenous rights and dismal living conditions in First Nations communities across the country.
Spurred on by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s months-long hunger strike in the shadow of Parliament Hill, Plain and other activists blocked the CN tracks in solidarity, moving the protest to another part of the tracks after an initial injunction came down.
Plain said the history of dishonoured treaties and land grabs from the band was ultimately behind the blockade.
Aamjiwanang signed a treaty with the Crown in 1827, but insists it never ceded the reserve. After the turn of the century, as Sarnia and its bustling industrial sector grew, pressure mounted to expropriate all the band’s remaining lands. In 1919, the Oliver Act allowed Indian Affairs to seize Aboriginal land arbitrarily.
“They came to our community three times to buy property off of us, and three times our community said no in a vote,” Plain explained. “At the end of the third time, the Indian Agent said, ‘Look, if you don’t vote yes now, we’re going to take the land from you.’ That changed the community’s vote from a no to a yes.”
But the money was not paid for decades, and the community still believes the government lied in order to steal their land and develop it into one of the most contaminated toxic industrial areas on the continent.
Today petrochemical plants surround the small Anishinabe community, and Plain said that the CN railway tracks he blockaded serviced only industry, not freight or passengers.
“…all the land these tracks are situated on are still Aamjiwanang’s,” he said. “These were the treaty infractions we were talking about at the blockade; the exclusive use and enjoyment of our lands, the ability to hunt, fish and trap.
“When you live in the most contaminated area of North America ... you don’t want to eat the game, you don’t want to eat the fowl, you don’t want to use the medicines, the things that make us Anishinabek. We want to be able to live here as the Anishinabek people that we are.”
Plain believes the speed and ease with which companies like CN are granted injunctions against protesters is a major problem facing anyone hoping to defend their rights or title.
“CN contacted their judge… and they had him sign an ex parte injunction,” he claimed. “They didn’t have to prove that they have a right-of-way to our property, or title to the land underneath our property. On their lawyer’s words, the judge granted an injunction.”
Plain refers to information revealed by APTN’s reporter Kenneth Jackson, who wrote about Ontario Supreme Court Justice David Brown, who issued both the Sarnia injunction, and a separate one against Tyendinaga Mohawk blockaders. He has previously worked as a lawyer representing CN.
The powerful firm was able to reach him late at night by phone to receive a verbal injunction against Plain and others, with no allowance for intervention by protesters.
Brown has also admitted to serving as a witness for CN in U.S. court. He lambasted Sarnia and Ontario police for delays in enforcing his injunctions, as a result of caution in the wake of the Ipperwash report into the police killing of Dudley George.
In rejecting CN’s demand for a $50,000 fine to be issued to Plain, Justice Bruce Thomas described the blockade as “a brief, yet flagrant, breach of a court order in a peaceful protest which caused no property damage.” He also rejected a request from Plain’s lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, for the fine to be only $1,000 due to his client being unable to work currently due to a neck injury.
CN spokesman Jim Feeny told Windspeaker the company was “satisfied” with the ruling, but would not reveal how much the firm lost due to the blockade. He firmly rejected accusations the penalty would put a chill on free speech or Indigenous rights.
“The issue has been resolved in the courts,” he said. “It was an illegal act.
“This was not an act of civil disobedience. It was a blockade. We were prevented from servicing our customers’ needs. We do not see this as an act of peaceful protest or a free speech issue.
Those acts were illegal. We will take the necessary steps to serve our customers’ transportation needs in the future.”
Plain said he is inspired by the struggles of his grandfather and great-grandfather in decades past.
“They sacrificed in the 50s and 60s to get our rights acknowledged, that are now being taken away from us by Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper,” he said. “But we know, as Aboriginal people, that he cannot take away or grant us rights that are ours. They don’t have that authority.”