Canadian Indians protested against poverty and lack of services on reservations, by blocking two key routes and forcing the closure of a Canada's busiest highway.
Mohawk protestors kicked off the demonstrations Thursday night by using a school bus and a pickup truck to block a highway near Deseronto, Ontario, halting traffic in both directions, officials said. Protesters also blocked a rail line, and the suspension of Via Rail train service came amid threats of more blockades.
About 40 protesters in army-style fatigues, some with their hair braided back or shaved in traditional Mohawk style, began arriving at a makeshift camp outside Deseronto around sundown. Police closed a stretch of Canada's busiest highway, the 401, as a safety measure just before midnight before the protestors were able to block it.
Canada's provincial premiers and territorial leaders issued a rare joint statement acknowledging that Indian tribes were understandably disappointed and frustrated with past injustices, but urging that Friday's demonstrations be peaceful.
Earlier this month Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed legislation to speed up the legal process to resolve Indian claims surrounding land taken by the government. But for many in these indigenous communities, the promises rang hollow after enduring years of what they say is chronic disregard by the federal government.
Most of the events planned for Friday are expected to be peaceful marches, but Mohawk leader Shawn Brant was the lone voice promoting hard-line militancy during the "day of action."
Brant said Friday morning he does not want to aggravate travelers more than necessary by keeping the 401 closed throughout the native day of action. He said two native police officers will negotiate with police.
"We certainly don't want to stick our finger in the public's eye and continue to do so," Brant said. "Obviously we're concerned about the support of the people."
The Bay of Quinte Mohawks, organized by Brant, blocked the railway near Deseronto, Ontario, in April, paralyzing service on that busy route. He had threatened to repeat the blockade Friday and also possibly block the 401 highway.
The chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, called for peaceful actions. He said Indians should use their protests to foster dialogue with other Canadians.
Past Indian protests have become violent. Protester Dudley George, 38, was shot in 1995 by a police sniper after Canadian native activists occupied Ontario's Ipperwash Provincial Park, claiming it was the site of a sacred burial ground.
The rail service cancellations, announced Thursday, affected the Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes. Service was expected to resume Saturday.
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