By ROB GILLIES
The Associated Press
Friday, June 29, 2007; 9:24 PM
TORONTO -- Protests by Canadian Indians against conditions on reservations forced the suspension Friday of some rail service and the closure of a busy highway, delaying several thousand travelers, officials said.
Most of events Friday, labeled by Indians groups as a day of protest, were peaceful marches that drew hundreds of Indians and their suppporters.
But police closed part of Highway 401 near Deseronto, Ontario, as a safety measure prior to midnight Thursday before Mohawk protesters were able to block it. Protesters later reached a deal with police to reopen the busy highway Friday morning.
Police were responding to the arrival of an estimated 40 Mohawk protesters _ organized by Shawn Brant, a lone voice of militancy among Indian leaders.
The group also blocked a rail line affecting two key routes that authorities had announced would be suspended Friday, the Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes. Service was expected to resume Saturday.
About 5,000 passengers were forced to make other arrangements, Via Rail spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutski said.
Groups in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ottawa and Toronto held protests where there were no blockades.
The demonstrations were aimed at what the protesters claimed were poor conditions on many reservations in Canada. They argue that the sites are short of housing and safe drinking water, and the high school graduation rate is just over half the national average.
"We are looking for the basic necessities of life that comes with being Canadian _ clean drinking water, decent housing, education and health care," Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a rally of hundreds in Ottawa.
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice criticized Brant's group, but said that otherwise, "It's been a good day for democracy and for the articulation of a peaceful point of view by First Nation Canadians."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has proposed legislation to speed up the legal process to resolve Indian claims surrounding land taken by the government. But for many in the indigenous communities, such promises ring hollow after years of what they say is chronic disregard by the federal government.