OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was denounced by other party leaders Tuesday for giving a speech that, according to the NDP, amounted to “absolute racism” in response to the government’s handling of the continued Wet’suwet’en crisis.
For 12 days, the federal government has struggled to deal with mounting protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink project crossing their traditional territory. The pipeline is located entirely in British Columbia and all the elected band councils on the pipeline route support the project.
Watch: Scheer blasts Trudeau’s response to blockades
Demonstrations have occurred across the country, including near Belleville, Ont., where the Tyendinaga Mohawks set up camp near the rail line, forcing CN to cut freight train traffic to Eastern Canada and Via Rail to suspend service. The disruption has affected tens of thousands of passengers and there are mounting concerns over potential shortages of propane, medical supplies, and food to eastern provinces as cargo remains stuck on ships waiting to anchor in the port of Vancouver.
The Ontario Provincial Police has so far refused to enforce a court injunction, saying it is up to politicians and protesters to find a solution. Talks over the weekend between the Tyendinaga Mohawks and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller resulted in no clear action. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett told reporters she is hoping to have a meeting with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in the community as soon as possible.
“To the Wet’suwet’en and Mohawk nations, and Indigenous leaders across the country, we are listening,” he said. “We are not asking that they stop standing up for their communities, rights, and for what they believe; we only ask that they be willing to work with the federal government as partners in finding solutions,” he said.
“There are those who would want us to act in haste, who want us to boil this down to slogans and ignore the complexities, who think that using force is helpful,” the prime minister added. “It is not. Patience may be in short supply and that makes it more valuable than ever.”
Scheer responded by calling Trudeau’s “word salad” speech the “weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history” and one that lacked a “clear denunciation” of the illegal actions of “radical activists.” He noted the lack of an action plan to put the Canadian economy back on track and called for the government to “enforce the rule of law.”
The Liberal government, Scheer said, is letting “a few loud voices” shut down development and prosperity for all.
“[S]tanding between our country and prosperity is a small group of radical activists, many of whom have little to no connection to First Nations communities, a bunch of radical activists who won’t rest till our oil and gas industry is entirely shut down,” he said. “[T]hey are appropriating an Indigenous agenda which they are willfully misrepresenting.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that Scheer had belittled First Nations by calling them names and was sowing division by suggesting he knows “who is a real community leader and who is not.”
“What he said was so divisive that it rises to the level of racism,” Singh told reporters.
What Scheer demonstrated in the House, the NDP leader added, was that he has no interest in working towards a solution that brings people together. “He showed that he has only the intention of speaking to a small group of people and heightening tensions and flaming divisions. All of the things that we don’t want to see in Canada.”
After his address, Trudeau held a special meeting with Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May. Trudeau excluded Scheer from the talks, despite noting in his speech that populism is resulting in people only listening “to themselves and to people who agree with them, and not to people of another perspective.”
The prime minister said: “Mr. Scheer disqualified himself from constructive discussion with his unacceptable speech earlier today.”
Quebec Conservative MP Gerard Detell said Trudeau had a particular vision of democracy if he was only choosing to meet with leaders who agree with him.
“We are the official Opposition. Do I need to remind the prime minister that we received more votes than him?”
In question period, Scheer’s temper flared.
“Dialogue is not going to pay the bills for people who are facing layoffs because of people breaking the law who have no connection to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation,” he said.
Trudeau responded that the government is engaged in actions that will lead to a “long-term resolution,” though he did not provide details about those activities.
He took a swipe at the Conservatives for continually pressing the public safety minister to order the RCMP to enforce injunctions and clear railway and pipeline construction blockades, saying those are examples of “short-term, forceful actions” that won’t work.
After question period, Scheer called the prime minister’s meeting with the other parliamentary leaders “a distraction.”
“I believe this meeting was called after the prime minister’s comm[unication]s team realized what a disastrous speech he gave in the House of Commons,” he said. “That was weak, weak, weak, weak.”
Scheer accused Trudeau of legitimizing “illegal protests” and not acknowledging the Wet’suwet’en people who support the project. “That is the real story today,” he said.
Chief: ‘Warmongers’ should remember Oka, Ipperwash
Earlier Tuesday, several grand chiefs held a press conference urging open dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en.
Joseph Norton, the grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, said “it’s easy,” for the Crown to send the military, the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP or the Sûreté du Québec to do its “bidding.”
But “warmongers” should note the history of Oka — where a police officer was killed in 1990 — and Ipperwash — where an Indigenous protester was killed in 1995— as a reminder “that we should use restraint,” he said. “Nobody wants to see that again.”
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon said for Scheer and “those right-wing politicians” to come out and propose “that kind of solution” only serves their partisan interests.
With a “hard line,” Scheer “brings up the worst possible scenario,” Simon said. If the protesters lift the blockades under those kinds of threats, it will look as if they are doing it out of fear. But if they choose to show they’re not afraid, it “leads to an escalation — which will lead to what Mr. Scheer actually wants,” he said. “I’m sure that he, and his Conservatives, would love to send in the army to prove some kind of parliamentary supremacy over First Nations people.”
Simon suggested the railway blockades should come down as a show of compassion — something for which he received backlash in his own community.
“These guys are brave for what they did. They’ve proven it,” he said, of the protesters. But, he also expressed concern First Nations action could poison goodwill with Canadian society and set back reconciliation efforts.
“Don’t let Mr. Scheer make you think that if you exercise compassion and take those blockades down, you’re ….doing this out of fear. You’ve proven that you’re not scared,” he said.
UPDATE: Wednesday, Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake retracted his earlier comments. Simon issued a statement saying that after “thoughtful reflection”, “listening to criticism” from his people and others, and seeing how his comments suggesting the time had come for the blockades to come down had been used by some to divide Indigenous peoples, he wished to retract his words.
“It is not my place to make such judgment: I leave it up to the people on the ground and Wet’suwet’en National leadership to make such calls,” he said.
Simon had earlier noted that some members of his community had locked him out of his council office. A small group of protesters held signs Tuesday saying Simon didn’t speak for them.