Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sparked howls from Conservative benches in the House of Commons Wednesday after claiming that Tory Leader Andrew Scheer likened Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to “radical” protesters.
Scheer and Trudeau squared off in question period over the rail blockades that have been erected over the past three weeks in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose a natural gas pipeline project in their unceded northwestern B.C. territory. The Coastal GasLink project is supported by 20 elected band councils along the route.
Scheer and his Conservative MPs have argued the protests that have disrupted traffic on rails, streets, bridges and ports across the country this month are really about shutting down Canada’s oil and gas industry. They say they are standing up for Wet’suwet’en people who want the project to move forward.
Though the prime minister has already called for the barricades to come down, the Tory leader accused Trudeau of elevating activists “with no connections to Indigenous issues” with his “weak” handling of the crisis.
“These are not people who are reflecting the will of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. If they did, they would be standing in solidarity and fighting to get this project built,” Scheer said.
The Tory leader noted the involvement of controversial environmental group Extinction Rebellion in some protests, but falsely claimed the group has been listed as a terrorist organization in the United Kingdom.
According to The Guardian, the group was listed as an extremist ideology in a document from counter-terrorism police in southeast England in what was later called an error in judgment.
“So, is the prime minister not embarrassed that he has shown less leadership and less of a backbone than radical protesters who just want to shut down our economy?” Scheer asked.
“It really concerns me that I might have heard the leader of the Official Opposition refer to Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs as radical protesters just because he disagreed with them. Because that is exactly what he just said,” Trudeau said.
The comment sparked calls of “shame” from Tory MPs, with at least one calling Trudeau a “liar.”
Trudeau said MPs should later check the Hansard — the official record of what is said in the Commons — because Scheer “made that equivalency.” The Tory leader did not fire back at the charge from the prime minister.
The heated moment came days after MPs voted down a Tory motion calling on the House to, among other things, “condemn the radical activists who are exploiting divisions within the Wet’suwet’en community” and “holding the Canadian economy hostage.”
It is the Tories who are “exploiting” divisions in the B.C. community and playing petty politics during a difficult moment for the country, Trudeau said Wednesday.
But the prime minister was also put on the defensive by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who again called on Trudeau to meet directly with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Trudeau has tapped Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to meet with the chiefs, a process that remains ongoing.
“This whole crisis could have been avoided if, over a month ago, the prime minister just met with the hereditary chiefs when they asked for it,” Singh said.
The prime minister responded that there are “many voices” in the Wet’suwet’en community, including hereditary and elected chiefs, who need to determine a path forward. Trudeau said it would be “interference” for a prime minister to sit down “with one group too quickly.”
Earlier, Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair denounced the actions of some protesters at a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont. who were seen on video standing on the tracks as a CN Rail train approached, before jumping out of the way. Provincial police said some protesters lit fires near the railway tracks.
“It is extremely concerning to see people endangering their own lives and the lives of others by trying to interfere with the trains,” Trudeau told reporters.
With files from The Canadian Press