Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government’s efforts on Friday to handle a series of anti-pipeline protests, urging a negotiated resolution to the blockades that have brought much of Canada’s passenger and freight railway transportation to a halt.
Mr. Trudeau said politicians should not be telling the police how to deal with protesters, and that he and his senior ministers have been in regular contact with premiers and others to find a solution.
Several blockades went up a week ago across Canada in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s opposition to the Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. This prompted the country’s largest freight rail carrier, Canadian National Railway Co., to suspend operations on its network east of Toronto Thursday, a move that could lead to as many as 6,000 layoffs, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union said.
CN spokesman Alexandre Boulé said in a statement that some workers have already been laid off: “We had to send notices of temporary layoffs to some of our Eastern Canadian operational staff, including employees working at Autoport in Eastern Passage, Moncton, Charny and Montreal.”
Via Rail also said Thursday that it was cancelling most of its passenger services. “As of tonight, February 14, 299 trains will have been cancelled since the blockades began. The total number of passengers that have been impacted to date is over 63,000,” Via spokesman Karl-Philip Marchand Giguère said in a statement.
The B.C. project at the heart of the protests is a 670-kilometre pipeline to feed a $40-billion liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat. Several First Nations support the venture. Others do not and have defied a court order and blocked construction.
Amid calls from businesses and political opponents for the government to direct police to clear the protesters and enforce court injunctions obtained by CN, Mr. Trudeau said the federal government does not have the authority to direct police to clear the blockades, even as the economic impact widens.
“First of all, obviously, we are not the kind of country where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters. We have professional police forces right across the country who are engaged in this issue as their mandates lead them to,” he said at a security conference in Munich, Germany.
“But let us remind ourselves that this has been a really difficult week for Canadians. People having trouble getting to work, school or home. Small businesses having trouble getting their goods to market. Institutions like hospitals, worried about resupply in ways that can really impact Canadians,” he said. ”We are a country that recognizes the right to protest, but we are a country of the rule of law, and we will ensure that everything is done to resolve this through dialogue and constructive outcomes.”
Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called on police to enforce court orders and end the blockades, and criticized protesters as misguided activists who are damaging the economy and ignoring the wishes of elected First Nations leaders.
Mr. Scheer said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair should direct the RCMP to enforce the law, while adding that it is up to police to decide how the law should be enforced. The Conservative Leader said his comments apply to regions where the RCMP has jurisdiction. The Ontario blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which is the main source of the economic disruption, is under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Provincial Police.
Mr. Trudeau said he and several cabinet ministers are working to reach a resolution. "We are working on it with a whole-of-government approach that is totally focused on resolving this situation the right way. Canadians are worried and we will stay engaged on this issue,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller confirmed in a tweet late Friday that he will meet on Saturday at 10 a.m. with Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald, Tyendinaga Chief Donald Maracle and Kanenhariyo, who also goes by Seth LeFort, at the rail crossing in Tyendinaga. He previously asked leaders to consider discontinuing the protest, but on Friday the blockade remained.
Protests sympathetic to Wet’su’weten Nation pipeline opposition in British Columbia appeared to be scaling back Friday. Blockades remained in Quebec’s Gaspé region and south of Montreal, along with the one in southeastern Ontario causing the biggest rail disruption. But protests that had paralyzed rail lines in Coquitlam, B.C., and near New Hazelton in the province’s north, along with the province’s legislature, had dissipated. Brief protests also took place earlier in the week along rail lines west of Winnipeg and at the Port of Halifax. Those locations were also quiet Friday.
The Société du Chemin de fer de la Gaspésie (SCFG) which runs a 325-kilometre line between Gaspé and Matapédia laid off five employees among its 30 workers Friday, five days after members of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation blocked their lines.
Bruce Snow, rail director with Unifor, another union representing rail workers, said about 18 or 20 workers representing 20 per cent of the container handlers at CN’s Brampton, Ont., yard have been laid off, and the company has said more are likely if the trains don’t resume service. Via Rail has also cut a small number of on-board staff and car mechanics with more job losses after the weekend, Mr. Snow said.
In Kahnawake Mohawk Territory south of Montreal, protesters shut down a CP rail line where a commuter train normally runs with 3,000 people daily. They also showed no signs of leaving Friday. Kahentinetha, a Mohawk elder and activist who has helped keep the barricade, said they are waiting for a signal from the Wet’suwet’en Nation that they should lift their blockade before any decisions are made. “We are a family and we are only listening to our family at this point,” she said.
In an affidavit sworn on Feb. 11, Josh Ellis, a senior manager at CN, said the Ontario rail blockade has delayed the delivery of about $1.75-billion worth of commodities, including chemicals, perishable food, auto parts, water purification, jet fuel, manufactured goods and forest products.
The loss of freight service has prompted worries about low supplies of chlorine for water treatment, propane for home heating and other shortages.
“The vast majority of goods that we have and use and purchase in stores travel by rail,” Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said.
The railways, along with leaders in affected industries and economic analysts, said the gradual shutdown of only the eastern portion of CN’s network combined with the uncertain duration of the blockade made assessing costs premature.
Avery Shenfeld, CIBC’s chief economist, said the bank is not revising economic forecasts because of the protests. “If it continued, this would have a significant impact on economic growth, but it’s likely the government knows that and won’t allow it to linger,” he said. “We’re not changing our projections based on that.”
Via Rail earns about $1-million a day in passenger revenue but operates at a loss and relies on slightly more than $1-million a day in government funding. The railway averages about 13,000 passengers daily and is providing refunds to those with cancelled trips.
CN lost about $13-million in revenue a day during its eight-day shutdown due to a labour dispute in the fall. Economists estimated the shutdown had a $1.6-billion to $2.2-billion impact on the Canadian economy. However, that stoppage closed the entire CN network, unlike the current gradual shutdown of only CN’s eastern network. “It’s a completely different context,” Mr. Shenfeld said.
Still, CN customers warned again Friday of looming shortages of critical supplies. Superior Propane said it would start rationing supplies to ensure heating for homes, retirement homes and hospitals if cargo doesn’t start moving by next week.
Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford was highly critical of Ottawa, saying Mr. Miller should have shown up at the blockade much earlier in the week.
“The lack of presence of the federal government in the community to this point is deeply concerning,” Mr. Rickford said in a statement to The Globe, adding that Indigenous leaders are working to find a solution within the communities.
The lack of presence of the federal government in the community to this point is deeply concerning— Ontario’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford
At the site of the Tyendinaga blockade on Friday, protesters would not speak to media but received food from a handful of visitors who crossed the railway tracks to their makeshift camp. Two OPP cruisers sat parked along the road at a distance.
Natalie Napier and her husband brought their two young children, aged 8 and 10, along from Peterborough to deliver food to the group.
“This is what it means to be treaty people, and I think that they’re standing up and doing the right thing and sticking up for people who’ve never ceded their land to Canada,” said Ms. Napier, who said she was not Indigenous.
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