OTTAWA — The consensus coming out of the Liberals’ caucus meeting Wednesday was that railway blockades need to come down soon, but MPs didn’t offer any specifics on how the government plans to resolve protests that have caused disruptions for nearly three weeks.
Blockades have been organized across the country to show solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to Coastal GasLink’s $6.6-billion pipeline project in northern British Columbia. Part of the 670-kilometre route runs through unceded Wet’suwet’en ancestral lands.
“The blockades obviously need to end for the sake of our economy and the disruption of people’s lives,” Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told HuffPost Canada. Federal engagement is not the obstacle in the way of a resolution, he said.
“I think the B.C. NDP, Coastal GasLink, the hereditary chiefs, and our ministers need to sit around the table and find a way forward.”
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On the federal level, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett have been running point on the evolving file on behalf of the government. It’s a file that includes longstanding, underlaying issues surrounding the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.
Protests have been organized with the hashtag #ShutDownCanada in response to the RCMP enforcing an injunction against Wet’suwet’en Nation members earlier this month blocking pipeline construction along the route.
The blockades have slowed and halted passenger and commercial railway transport in parts of the country, and have created backlogs in three of Canada’s biggest ports.
Burnaby North–Seymour MP Terry Beech said he’s hearing from commuters and business owners in his riding being affected by the blockades. He echoed that he would like to see a speedy resolution, saying “we need to make sure we do it in the right way to make sure that it doesn’t get worse.”
Toronto MP Julie Dzerowicz stressed that a fast resolution is key to stopping “copycat” issues from popping up across the country.
The blockades have fueled a debate over Coastal GasLink’s route, part of which runs through territory that hereditary chiefs hold the rights and title over. Proponents of the project have repeatedly pointed to the work the company has done to sign benefit agreements with 20 elected First Nations councils along the pipeline route.
Under the Indian Act, band councils have jurisdiction over reserve lands. The Wet’suwet’en Nation is composed of five clans, and nation leadership and laws were never extinguished when the Indian Act passed in 1876, giving the hereditary chiefs jurisdiction over their non-reserve territory.
Opposition parties have continued to press the government to do more to end the blockades that have affected the transport of propane and water-treatment chemicals. The NDP have pressed the prime minister to meet with hereditary chiefs, and the Conservatives have criticized the government for being beholden to “radical activists.”
Conservative MP Dave MacKenzie told reporters before his party’s caucus meeting that constituents in his southern Ontario ridings are sympathetic but also fed up with the government’s handling of the situation.
“They don’t understand why we’re not doing anything,” he said. “They do respect having conversation, but there’s a point where conversation ends and action takes over.”
Michael Chong, another Conservative MP, said the government’s roadmap to a solution hasn’t been clear from the onset. “The government has been completely inconsistent in its messaging and its decision on this file,” he said, referencing Trudeau’s initial approach in supporting more dialogue before switching to a more hardline approach last week.
To prevent similar unwieldy situations from happening again in the future, Chong said work needs to be done on the federal level to work with provincial solicitors general. He suggested general directives need to be issued to law enforcement to identify critical infrastructure and to ensure that future blockade are removed in a more timely manner.
Increasing pressure over the situation forced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to change his tone to more direct language last week. “The barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld,” he said, explaining that every attempt at dialogue had been made on the government’s part.
On Wednesday morning, protesters in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory lit fires alongside railway tracks. As rail service resumed, Ontario Provincial Police East Region spokesman Bill Dickson said some tires were thrown onto railway tracks and set aflame. Some also threw objects such as rocks and sticks at trains, he said.
Heading into question period, the prime minister expressed concerns over the latest developments at the blockade in Tyendinaga, Ont.
“It is extremely concerning to see people endangering their own lives and the lives of others by trying to interfere with the trains,” he said.