Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada is at a “critical moment” over blockades erected in opposition to a British Columbia natural-gas pipeline project, but that patience and dialogue is the only way forward.
In the House of Commons Tuesday, Trudeau said it is “past time” to resolve protests that have, over almost two weeks, shut down CN Rail traffic in eastern Canada, halted Via Rail passenger service, and disrupted traffic on streets and bridges in several cities.
The demonstrations are in solidarity with hereditary chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who oppose Coastal GasLink’s construction of a pipeline through their unceded traditional territory. The RCMP enforced a court injunction earlier this month to allow the project, which is supported by elected band councillors, to continue.
“What we are facing was not created overnight. It was not created because we have embarked on a path of reconciliation recently in our history. It is because for too long in our history, for too many years, we failed to do so,” Trudeau said.
“So finding a solution will not be simple. It will take determination, hard work and cooperation.”
Listen to Trudeau’s full speech:
The prime minister said he is formally extending his hand of partnership to Indigenous demonstrators, including not just the Wet’suwet’en First Nation but also leaders from the Mohawk First Nation behind a rail blockade on the Tyendinaga territory near Belleville, Ont.
“We are not asking that you stop standing up for your communities, your rights, and for what you believe, we only ask that you be willing to work with the federal government as a partner in finding solutions,” he said.
Trudeau also called on Canadians to show “resolve” and collaboration, saying that “everyone has a stake in getting this right.”
Trudeau has faced calls from the NDP to meet directly with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. On Tuesday, he told the House that Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett is prepared to meet with hereditary chiefs at “any time.”
But the prime minister gave no indication that he would be calling for the national police force to clear the blockades, as urged by federal Conservatives. Last week, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer demanded Trudeau force the public safety minister to use his authority under the RCMP Act to direct an end to “illegal blockades.”
“Do we want to become a country of irreconcilable differences where people talk but refuse to listen? Where politicians are ordering police to arrest people? A country where people think they can tamper with rail lines and endanger lives? This is simply unacceptable,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister faced some heckling during his remarks when he criticized those who “ignore the complexities” of the issues and “think that using force is helpful” — an oblique dig at Scheer.
“Patience may be in short supply and that makes it more valuable than ever,” the prime minister said.
Scheer bluntly responded that Trudeau’s words amounted to “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.”
The Tory leader said Trudeau’s speech, which he characterized as a “word salad,” lacked a clear denunciation for the “illegal” acts of protesters and an action plan to end the blockades.
Scheer received applause from his benches for claiming many of the “radical activists” have “little to no connection to First Nations communities.” He suggested the protests are really about shutting down Canada’s oil and gas industry, calling them a “warm-up act” for other demonstrations to come.
“The prime minister’s elevation of these protesters to the same level of the thousands of men and women in First Nations communities across our country who have in good faith been trying to right the wrongs of Canadian history does a disservice to the spirit of reconciliation,” Scheer said.
Scheer said his party stands in solidarity with “the elected councillors of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation” who want the project to go forward.
Watch Scheer’s remarks:
Trudeau later called a meeting to discuss the government’s response to the matter with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May. Trudeau told reporters that Scheer “disqualified himself” from the meeting with his comments to the House.
Earlier, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told a press conference in Ottawa that dialogue remains the best way to “de-escalate” tensions.
“I say our people are taking action because they want to see action — and when they see positive action by the key players, when they see a commitment to real dialogue to address this difficult situation, people will respond in a positive way,” he said.
MPs will hold an emergency debate on the blockades Tuesday evening, at the urging of New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois.
With files from The Canadian Press