Aamjiwnaang First Nation Chief Chris Plain, right, shakes hands with Sarnia Police Chief Phil Nelson prior to a celebratory ceremony at the CN rail blockade near Sarnia, ON on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.
Credits: PAUL OWEN/QMI AGENCY
TORONTO - After being slammed by a judge for not properly carrying out his injunction to end a native protest, OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis fired back saying police not only prevented violence but maybe even death.
"I am not going to tell a young OPP widow that her deceased police husband gave his life to open the tracks, when we knew that in a few hours they would have been open anyway," Lewis said.
And he was staunch in his defence of Sarnia Police Chief Phil Nelson.
"Chief Nelson in Sarnia handled the railway blockade there as he should, in my opinion," Lewis said. "Any aggressive action there would have potentially resulted in more aggressive tactics by protesters across the province or nation. There's a time and a place for enforcement action, and that decision has to be in the hands of the officer in charge on scene and not determined by the courts."
Of course, much to the Caledonia agitation crowd's displeasure, he is right.
But Justice David Brown expressed his disappointment with police handling of the standoff at the CN line in "chemical alley" in Sarnia.
"I am shocked by such disrespect shown to this court by the Sarnia police," he was quoted a saying on Dec. 27 in a Tuesday Post Media column by Christie Blatchford.
It's certainly easy for a judge to say from his warm and safe chambers.
But do you want judges or politicians directing police?
"With all due respect to His Honour, when our officers marched down the road and confronted protesters in Ipperwash in 1995, it didn't go so well," said Lewis. "A life was lost, many lives were forever changed and the resulting inquiry combined with simple common sense, forced us to change the way the police must deal with these issues across Canada."
In Dudley George's memory, Lewis said, "We now take a very measured and consultative approach, avoiding violent confrontation where feasible. We do take enforcement action in many cases, and do lay numerous charges against protesters."
Would the critics have been happier had there been Native protesters and police blood poured all over the rail tracks?
Nelson told QMI Agency that throughout the days of protest, his officers "were working on gaining trust" with the protesters and Aamjiwnaang Chippewas of Sarnia elders. "I have great respect for judges and court orders, but we have learned many lessons from Oka and Ipperwash," said Nelson. "We felt the appropriate way to enforce it was do to it peacefully."
His de-escalation approach was correct. Turns out congratulations are in order - instead of insults.
And no $100-million inquiry or funerals either.
The judge, while understandably frustrated, was naive in his big picture understanding.
"The OPP are not going to solve hundreds of years of legal issues by marching down the road and fighting with a group of First Nations people - some of which are often women, children and elderly people," said Lewis. "A peaceful several hour blockade, as wrong as it is, pales in comparison to a full shutdown of all major highways, railways and therefore trade routes across Canada for days or weeks. Hundreds of First Nations territories, with thousands of First Nations people residing therein and in other municipalities from coast to coast do have the ability to carry that out. That doesn't make it right by any means, but it is reality."
Lewis said patience and negotiating is "much easier than taking aggressive action, jeopardizing, taking or losing lives, over what amounts to trespassing or mischief and an inconvenience to others."
In the end the OPP and Sarnia police's tactics worked. The blockade is over and, sorry to those who wanted bashed brains, but no one was hurt.
But you be the judge.