Talks among senior government ministers and Wet’suwet’en Nation hereditary chiefs aimed at resolving a B.C. pipeline dispute resumed on Friday, with officials striking an optimistic tone amid some signs of rail traffic getting back to normal.
The talks, which began on Thursday, were expected to continue on Saturday morning after running through late Friday night, following a dinner break at a hotel in Smithers, B.C. The discussions followed weeks of disruption that began after police on Feb. 6 started enforcing a court injunction against protesters on a B.C. logging road to clear the way to Coastal GasLink work sites.
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Scott Fraser, B.C.'s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, arrived in Smithers on Thursday and have been meeting with hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink’s plan to build a $6.6-billion pipeline.
“The chiefs and Minister Bennett and myself have come in with an open heart, an open mind. And we’re exploring the art of the possible, and that I think, that’s promising,” Mr. Fraser told reporters on Friday morning.
“It is up to us to be here to listen to the Wet’suwet’en leadership,” Ms. Bennett said.
Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who has been serving as a liaison between the B.C. government and hereditary chiefs since late January, said the Wet’suwet’en Nation’s unceded traditional territory has been the focus of the meetings.
“There is no such thing as a quick fix in this,” Mr. Cullen told reporters on Friday morning. “It wasn’t going to happen at a blockade, it wasn’t going to happen at a protest. It was always going to be a conversation between leadership.”
Via Rail Canada on Friday said it will resume partial passenger service in the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor on March 3 after police cleared a blockade near Belleville, Ont. The Crown corporation, which leases track space from Canadian National Railway Co., suspended almost all its trains on Feb. 13, and has been gradually restarting routes. As of Feb. 28, the blockades had forced Via to cancel 940 trains, affecting more than 164,000 passengers.
A Reuters report said Canadian National has started calling back many of the 450 workers it laid off earlier this month in eastern Canada when blockades hit strategic rail lines.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday that no one enjoys seeing shortages, Canadians being laid off or the economy slowing down.
But he stressed the priority must be the safety of all Canadians and engagement with Indigenous peoples.
“We know some of the underlying issues that are fuelling these protests,” he told The Globe.
“If we don’t get it right this time, it will be a very warm summer, frankly. People should think about that because we’ve done this badly in the past and we’ve repeated those errors and we are seeing a lot of those historical missteps popping up again.”
The pipeline project, for which planning began in 2012, would transport natural gas from northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the West Coast, where LNG Canada has started building an $18-billion terminal for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia. The B.C. and federal governments back the LNG terminal and natural gas pipeline.
Coastal GasLink has reached benefit agreements with the elected band councils of 20 First Nations along the pipeline route, including councils representing five Wet’suwet’en communities.
But a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary house chiefs has led a vocal campaign against the pipeline’s construction, saying hereditary leaders, not elected band councillors, have jurisdiction over their unceded traditional territory located outside of federal reserves.
About 190 kilometres of the 670-kilometre pipeline route cross the Wet’suwet’en’s territory.
The hereditary chiefs opposed to the pipeline had set several conditions before they would talk to government officials, including that the RCMP reduce patrols around the logging road and that Coastal GasLink suspend work on the project.
On Thursday, the Mounties agreed to suspend patrols along the logging road during the talks, while Coastal GasLink said it would put construction on hold for two days to “facilitate dialogue” between government representatives and the hereditary chiefs.
Protests and blockades, especially along rail corridors in Ontario and Quebec, have caused ships and cargo to back up at Canada’s main ports in Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal.
The Port of Vancouver, Canada’s busiest export terminal, already had backlogs caused by global trade tensions, recent landslides in B.C., and the outbreak of coronavirus, which has slowed factory output in China.
More than 20 ships have cancelled calls at the Port of Vancouver as result of the outbreak, which has reduced demand in China for Canadian coal and prolonged the holiday shutdown of Chinese factories.
“There is no doubt the blockades are having an impact,” said Robin Silvester, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. “But other things like the coronavirus are also having an impact.”
The port had 52 ships at anchor on Friday morning, more than the usual 30 or 40, awaiting cargo stalled by the blockades. According to port data, 31 of those are grain vessels, a sign shipments have slowed amid a scarcity of propane, which farmers use to dry their crops before shipping them, Mr. Silvester said.
With reports from Eric Atkins in Toronto and Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
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