Published in Windspeaker newspaper | September 2013 | Circulation: 145,000
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.