14 people arrested Monday night at Gitxsan rail blockade in northern B.C.

Gitxsan hereditary chief Spookw says he expected to be arrested after he made the decision to invite people to re-establish a blockade on the CN rail line that runs through his house group’s territory near New Hazelton, B.C., about 200 km northeast of Prince Rupert. 

But he was surprised by the number of Gitxsan and supporters who stood by his side as RCMP approached to enforce an injunction against them on Monday night. 

“I was quite taken aback by that and quite proud of the people who were standing with me,” he said. 

The RCMP said in a statement that its enforcement actions happened at the request of the CN Police Service after the blockade was re-established Monday afternoon. 

Fourteen people were arrested including three hereditary chiefs.

The RCMP said in a news release that those people were arrested because they “refused to leave CN Rail’s private property (rail tracks).”

All 14 people were released by around 3 a.m. on Tuesday with conditions to obey the injunction order and they were also given an upcoming court date.

While they were being processed at the New Hazelton RCMP detachment, dozens of people took to the street demanding that the chiefs be released. 

Cherylin Wilson, whose Gitxsan name is Hla Gai Maax Gii Tsogx, was on-site during the arrests and watched the RCMP enforcement actions from outside the injunction area. 

She said it was particularly difficult for her to witness when one of the nation’s matriarchs was arrested — hereditary chief Gwininitxw (Yvonne Lattie). 

Hereditary chief Gwininitxw (Yvonne Lattie) was featured in a CBC News story in 2017 talking about the significance of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Delgamuukw decision 20 years later. (George Baker/CBC)

“To many of us, we view our matriarchs as a mother figure. She’s our tie to our culture and who we are inherently. This becomes personal to us when someone threatens our mothers,” she said. 

She said Gwininitxw is held in high regard as a Sigidimhaanak, the word used to describe a woman with a high chief name in the Gitxsan nation.

Denzel Sutherland-Wilson also witnessed the chief’s arrest and said, “she is at the highest level of status in the Gitxsan nation. That was the most enraging for me.” 

As news of hereditary chiefs being arrested spread, more people gathered at the rail area and on the highway. They blocked traffic on Highway 16 for several hours, at times shouting “free our chiefs” at police who remained on site. 

During those hours of the highway blockade, RCMP officers noticed that the tires had been slashed on four patrol cars. 

“The RCMP is investigating this criminal action and will take steps to ensure that those who damage property or threaten the safety of anyone may be held accountable in a court of law,” stated the police media release. 

Injunction in response to earlier blockade

CN said it would not comment on the matter. 

The company was granted an injunction earlier this month in response to an earlier blockade on the same section of the rail line.  

In court documents filed in the B.C. Supreme Court to apply for the injunction, CN cited the economic harms of the blockade, saying that on average 18 trains are operated on the line every day.

The company also stated that the value of the commodities moved along the B.C. North Line between the Alberta border and Prince Rupert is about $135 million per day. 

Spookw and supporters blocked the rail line for four days earlier this month. On the fourth day, he announced the blockade would be coming down because he’d received letters from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan agreeing to set up a meeting between high level officials and hereditary chiefs 

The train tracks were blocked near New Hazelton, B.C., for four days earlier in February. (Photo by Lillian Granley)

Spookw said the decision to re-establish the rail blockade was because of the arrests on Monday of Tyendinaga Mohawks who were blocking a CN rail line in Ontario, and because “Canada was not acting in good faith with the ongoing preliminary discussions with the Wet’suwet’en.” 

While Spookw said he doesn’t have plans to bring back the blockade he said he wouldn’t be surprised if others decide to create new blockades elsewhere on the rail line. 

He said Gitxsan people will continue to take a stand in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs because in their view, “the underlying issue to this whole thing is the title and rights, title to the land, the ownership of the land that Canada is refusing to deal with. Canada and British Columbia.” 

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