Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has arrived in northern British Columbia for meetings with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and her provincial counterpart Scott Fraser.
After landing at the airport in Smithers, Ms. Bennett told reporters she looked forward to a fruitful meeting.
“Success is that we have a plan to continue to talk,” she said.
“I think the issue is that I think everybody believes that there needed to be some space to be able to have respectful talks.”
The meetings on Thursday afternoon will take place inside the building of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, a non-profit society governed by hereditary chiefs.
“Obviously it’s very important that we reaffirm our interest in talking to the Wet’suwet’en Nation on their issues of title and rights,” Ms. Bennett said.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller praised the fact that face-to-face meetings are taking place.
“We talked about modest progress but this is a good step and if it’s anything it’s a victory for dialogue and peaceful resolution,” he told reporters.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs said in a statement on Thursday the meeting with Ms. Bennett and Mr. Fraser constitute a “first step” while they noted invitations to both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan were “declined at this time.”
The hereditary chiefs said they agreed to the meeting after an agreement by the RCMP to stop patrols on a forest service road as well as to close a community outpost. Coastal GasLink will cease work and stop security patrols on the Upper Morice as “demonstrations of good faith to create breath room” for the discussions, the statement added.
“We believe these conditions provide the space we need to be able to sit down at the table in good faith and a positive path forward,” the statement said.
“We hope the RCMP and CGL see the wisdom in that and help create the conditions for positive and respectful discussions. We are so close and have called on the provincial and federal governments to support this de-escalation of activities so that this issue can be resolved.”
On Thursday, the RCMP confirmed that “patrols along the Morice West Forest Service Road will cease during the period of discussions with the government representatives.” The force said it has agreed not to patrol the road unless there is an emergency call for service, and that members of the Wet’suwet’en Rangers will patrol the road while talks are being held.
Coastal GasLink confirmed it has agreed to a two-day pause of construction activities in the Morice River area to “facilitate dialogue” between the hereditary chiefs and government officials.
“The pause is expected to begin on commencement of talks,” it said in a statement. “We fully support the efforts of all parties and are committed to finding a peaceful resolution to the current issues.”
Thursday’s discussions come a day after a spokesperson for B.C. Premier John Horgan said it was unfortunate it could not come to an agreement to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. That has since changed.
Federal and B.C. ministers have been seeking a meeting with the chiefs who oppose a Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through traditional territory.
The concerns of the hereditary chiefs have sparked blockades, demonstrations and arrests in parts of Canada, including in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said enforcing the law through arrests is the “last option” in the event of a blockade, according the RCMP’s operating procedures.
“We have a specific policy that we have created specifically for Indigenous blockades. Of course, enforcement is the last option,” she told MPs Thursday during a committee appearance related to spending estimates.
“It's about dialogue and trying to find a peaceful resolution to the blockades in the circumstances. And it's no different than what's happening currently with the Wet’suwet’en,” she said.
Ms. Lucki said when a court injunction is in place to end a blockade, the RCMP has options in terms of how it responds.
“We can decide when and how we will enforce, even though the injunction is in place. That’s the discretion we’ve been given,” she said.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters Thursday he hopes Thursday’s meeting between B.C.’s Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and government officials will be a turning point that leads Mohawks in Quebec and Ontario to end their solidarity protests, which have included rail blockades.
“We’re going to be sitting down this afternoon, and that is what is the most important. That's what we want to achieve,” said Mr. Garneau, when asked whether the government wants the Wet’suwet’en chiefs to urge supporters to bring national protests to an end.
“Maybe there’ll be some clear signalling. Perhaps, maybe not even through an announcement. But perhaps the Mohawks will make a decision on their own. We’ll see,” he said. “But I think what’s important is to start this this dialogue – the one that we’ve been talking about for weeks – and we’ll see what happens.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Garneau said Wednesday it will take many weeks to get rail service back on track even if blockades come to an immediate end.
Andrew Brant, who is from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, confirmed that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs did not ask the Mohawks to stand down during a conversation that took place Wednesday. Mr. Brant refused to reveal details about the conversation between the two First Nations. Mr. Brant has repeatedly said Tyendinaga Mohawks won’t stand down until conditions laid out by hereditary chiefs are met.
“We’re going to keep on continuing moving forward peacefully,” he told The Globe late Wednesday. On Thursday morning, Tyendinaga Mohawk members protesting in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs made no attempts to stop trains from passing through the area near Belleville, Ont.
Later Thursday afternoon, Mohawk protesters lit a fire with pallets and tires on the south side of the rail line at Camp B. Black smoke billowed from the south side of the rail line and Mohawks stoked the fire with more tires as a train horn sounded in the distance. At about 2:45 p.m., the train passed by the camp. Two Mohawk protesters walked onto the tracks and threw an object that appeared to be on fire at the train cars.
Ontario Provincial Police continue to monitor the protest. “Camp B,” which includes three military-style tents, has been the Mohawk base since their first blockade was dismantled by police Monday. The first blockade had choked off a key rail route to Eastern Canada.
Real People’s Media, an Indigenous news website based in Tyendinaga, posted on Facebook Thursday morning that the Mohawks are “building a village” at the camp on Wyman Road. Video footage from the night before shows protesters setting up a long rectangular tent south of the rail lines as a train rolled by.
- With files from Justine Hunter in Victoria, Brent Jang in Smithers, B.C., Bill Curry in Ottawa and Kate McCullough in Belleville, Ont.
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