Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted the benefits of a liquefied natural gas project that’s at the centre of an impasse with First Nations in a speech to supporters in Kamloops, B.C., on Wednesday.
RCMP arrested 14 people Monday in northwestern British Columbia over a protest against construction of a natural gas pipeline by Coastal GasLink, a key part of the $40-billion LNG Canada project.
In a campaign-style speech at the Liberal fundraiser, Trudeau did not address the arrests but heralded the massive project as one of his government’s key achievements over the past year.
“We moved forward on the LNG Canada project, which is the largest private sector investment in Canada’s history, $40-billion, which is going to produce Canadian LNG that will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment,” he said.
The RCMP enforced an injunction Monday from the B.C. Supreme Court that ordered the removal of any obstructions to the pipeline project in and around the Morice River Bridge on a remote forest service road southwest of Houston.
The pipeline company says it has signed agreements with all First Nations along the route but demonstrators say Wet’suwet’en house chiefs, who are hereditary rather than elected, have not given their consent.
“No, obviously, it’s not an ideal situation,” Mr. Trudeau told a CBC radio program, adding there needs to be room for people to express their concerns. “But at the same time, we’re also a country of the rule of law.”
Later Wednesday, Trudeau told Radio NL that “we’re going to have to do a better job” of dealing with First Nations rights and title.
“There’s still work to be done right across the country in terms of having the opportunity for Indigenous communities to strengthen their governance models,” he said.
“The federal government is not the one who should be deciding who speaks for which Indigenous community. Our responsibility is to support communities as they develop models that make sense. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now.”
The prime minister was scheduled to speak at a town hall gathering at Thompson Rivers University on Wednesday, where hundreds of people waited in a long line in frigid weather.
Small groups of protesters gathered as well. About a dozen Indigenous protesters chanted “Protect the Water” and beat drums, while a handful of yellow-vest demonstrators stood nearby with “No Carbon Tax” signs.
Tsi7i, a Secwepemc protester, said she opposes the arrests in northwest B.C. and Trudeau’s “push for pipelines.” She challenged Trudeau’s comment earlier Wednesday that the demonstrators at the pipeline blockade must respect the law.
“He needs to respect Indigenous law ... pertaining to the hereditary structure,” she said.
She said her group of protesters has been getting along amicably with the pro-pipeline yellow-vest demonstrators.
“We can agree on one thing and that’s no Justin Trudeau,” she laughed.
The prime minister told supporters at the fundraiser that he expected to hear “strong voices” at the town hall with very clear ideas about what his government should be doing.
“The challenge we have to have as Canadians is to be open to listening to people, to understand their concerns and their fears, and to work together to try and allay them,” he said.
“We will always have in this country perspectives that vary widely.”
Dozens of protesters on both sides of the pipeline debate gathered outside the hotel where Trudeau spoke at the fundraiser.
Protesters wearing yellow vests carried signs that read “Carbon Tax Cash Grab” and “Trudeau for Treason” while taking part in a chant opposing a United Nations pact on migration signed by Canada. Conservative critics argue it threatens Canada’s sovereignty.
Keith LaRiviere, who is Cree and participated in the yellow-vest protest, said he knows some of the people involved in the pipeline blockade.
He said he supports their right to protest but he believes those building the pipeline also have the right to do their work.
“I go to sweat lodges with some of those people so I really know them intimately, and I do support their cause. I do support their right to their land. I don’t support the aggressive way they were forced out of their position,” said LaRiviere, who travelled from Prince George.
On the other side of the hotel parking lot, a group of Indigenous protesters opposed to the pipeline sang, drummed and held a banner reading “PM Trudeau: Canada needs climate action now.”
Janice Billy said she supports the Wet’suwet’en because her First Nation, the Secwepemc, are also losing control of their lands.
“The people ... had no reason to be arrested. They are peaceful people. They were there protecting the land and water,” she said.
The federal riding of Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo is held by Conservative MP Cathy McLeod and the Liberals see B.C. as a key battleground for the election in October.
Trudeau’s visit to Kamloops marks the start of an outreach tour that will expand across the country.
Before meeting Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian on Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau highlighted the importance of Ottawa working with cities.
“There are lots of opportunities for us to work together, on infrastructure, on supporting our young people. The federal government really believes in partnership with our cities.”