Provincial premiers are putting pressure on Ottawa to resolve nationwide protests over a natural-gas pipeline in Northern British Columbia, as new rail blockades appeared in Alberta and Quebec and Via Rail said it was laying off 1,000 employees.
Four Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs from Northern B.C. arrived in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., Wednesday evening to a welcome party thrown by demonstrators there who have blocked Canadian National Railway Co.’s main rail line for two weeks.
The Wetʼsuwetʼen Nation hereditary chiefs oppose the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project through their traditional territories on its way from northeastern B.C. to Kitimat on the coast, but the project has received support from elected band members.
Mohawk demonstrator Andrew Brant said the B.C. chiefs are meeting Thursday with nine of their Mohawk Nation counterparts to begin crafting an “entirely peaceful” solution that they can present to Ottawa to end the protests roiling the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Question Period on Wednesday that he is open to having an Indigenous police force replace the RCMP in dealing with the B.C. protest.
The premiers held a conference call Wednesday afternoon to discuss the standoffs, which they say are causing major disruptions to the national economy, and called on the federal government to show leadership on the issue.
The premiers are seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister by teleconference Thursday “to discuss paths to a peaceful resolution and an end to the illegal blockades,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, the chair of the Council of the Federation, said in a statement on behalf of the premiers.
Earlier Wednesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called the situation “anarchy” and suggested illegal protests are shutting down large parts of the Canadian economy that “ultimately will imperil public safety and health.”
Premier François Legault said he is in discussions with Quebec’s provincial police force about the blockades, but he said it’s too soon to discuss how they might be dismantled.
Mr. Legault said he does not want Quebec to go alone to deal with its three blockades, including a new one that popped up Wednesday in Saint-Lambert, Que., south of Montreal. The latest blockade cut off a Montreal commuter line and the CN route from Montreal to the United States.
“We have to co-ordinate. It can’t just be an intervention in Quebec, it has to be in all the provinces at the same time. Mr. Trudeau must take leadership,” Mr. Legault told reporters.
“One thing is certain: These barricades must be dismantled in coming days. Nothing can be excluded right now. Yes, we must listen to First Nations. But we also must listen to Quebeckers and Canadians who are suffering right now. Jobs are at stake.”
Via Rail said Wednesday it will lay off about 1,000 employees, or one-third of its work force, as the protests have halted passenger and freight train traffic in much of the country.
Enforcing a court order, the RCMP arrested several protesters earlier this month who were blocking a logging road in Northern B.C. The arrests prompted the solidarity protest on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which has effectively blocked passenger and rail traffic between Montreal and Toronto since Feb. 6. It is scheduled to resume Friday.
The issue dominated the agenda on Parliament Hill, but the Liberal government was no closer Wednesday to finding a resolution. A special meeting of cabinet has been scheduled for Thursday.
To date, federal ministers have been unable to secure a face-to-face meeting with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Crown-Indigenous Minister Carolyn Bennett and B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser wrote to the hereditary chiefs Wednesday to reiterate their desire to meet. “We’ll meet them wherever they are," Ms. Bennett told reporters.
Some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs said this week that they will not meet with federal officials until the RCMP leave their territory.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trudeau said that policing the protests in B.C. and Ontario is the responsibility of the provinces. He noted that the RCMP operate as a provincial police force in B.C.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet asked the Prime Minister Wednesday during Question Period whether the government would replace the RCMP.
“Has the government considered the idea of withdrawing the RCMP, who are perceived as an intrusion, and replacing them with an Indigenous law-enforcement body of their choosing?” Mr. Blanchet asked.
“That’s a good idea, and it’s one among many that we’re discussing and considering with B.C.,” Mr. Trudeau replied.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Mr. Trudeau of showing “incredible weakness” in response to the protests.
“This Prime Minister still refuses to take any kind of action,” he said during Question Period.
“Now these radical activists have erected these blockades because they want to shut down our resource centre. Protesters 4,000 kilometres away want to cancel billions of dollars worth of resource projects, one supported by the elected council of the Wet’suwet’en and even the British Columbia NDP government. This is not a way to grow the economy."
Mr. Trudeau said the course of action proposed by Mr. Scheer would cause long-term harm.
A sign reading “No pipelines on stolen land” was erected across CN’s tracks west of Edmonton on Wednesday morning as part of a new blockade in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. A group called Cuzzins for Wet’suwet’en pushed wooden crates on the train line and said in a news release that it intended to block the tracks until the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory.
CN received a court order to remove the blockade Wednesday evening. The Canadian Press reported that organizers started dismantling their blockade after counter-protesters showed up.
Edmonton police said they were monitoring the situation and directed all questions to the railway and CN Police.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Independent B.C. MP, said Wednesday that Mr. Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan should make themselves available to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to help de-escalate the situation.
“The Prime Minister has always talked about the most important relationship [with Indigenous peoples],” she said. “Well, that relationship is being tested right now.”
Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who served as a regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in British Columbia before becoming a federal politician, also suggested a “cooling off” period, where construction activity would not take place on the pipeline, to allow for dialogue.
With reports from Mike Hager in Vancouver, Les Perreaux in Montreal, James Keller and Justin Giovannetti in Calgary
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