To get a sense for the scale of the challenge Premier John Horgan’s administration is facing these days, look no further than Tuesday, when the B.C. legislature became the scene of a noisy, and potentially dangerous, protest against the controversial Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline.
The RCMP has spent the last couple of days arresting protesters at the main point of the conflict: an access road near Houston, B.C., which traverses land belonging to the Wet’suwet’en Nation. While the elected band council supports the pipeline project, a group of hereditary chiefs opposes it, rallying support across the country in the name of their cause.
This is a tricky bit of business for Mr. Horgan’s New Democratic government. In the last election, the NDP campaigned on the wide-eyed notion of reconciliation – that governments could no longer just ram decisions down the throats of First Nations and their people. The New Democrats became the first government in the country to pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which bestows new powers and privileges on the province’s aboriginal people.
Protesters blocking MLAs from entering the provincial legislature for the throne speech did not forget this. “UNDRIP, UNDRIP, UNDRIP,” they chanted on Tuesday outside the building.
Many are now watching to see how the government handles this conflict. In many respects, it’s become strictly a police matter. The RCMP are enforcing a court injunction to clear the protesters who are blocking Coastal GasLink from proceeding with construction of the pipeline. It is taking longer than expected, largely because of the number of people who have descended on the area.
Footage of Indigenous elders being carted off to jail never looks good, but it wouldn’t be the first time, nor is it likely to be the last. In this dispute, Mr. Horgan has a pretty formidable asset on his side – the 20 First Nations along the route of the pipeline that support the project. Construction delays hurt them as much as anyone.
I also think that supporters of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are not doing the cause any favours. This week, protesters blocked main arterial roads in Vancouver and access to a bridge in the capital of Victoria. Public reaction has not been sympathetic at all. In fact, I would suggest the tactics have moved public opinion firmly onto the side of the pipeline proponents.
It’s difficult imagining any scenario in which the project doesn’t proceed. This moment we’re in will likely become a mere footnote in the history of the province.
Mr. Horgan, for his part, was noticeably downcast on the day of the throne speech, a marked departure from his usual ebullient self. No one likes conflict, especially the kind of ugly scenes witnessed outside the B.C. legislature on Tuesday. It cast a pall over the proceedings, for sure, and eclipsed a throne speech of which the Premier was likely proud.
There wasn’t a lot new in it, but there was plenty of boasting about what this minority government has managed to accomplish in its nearly three-year lifespan. It has made its share of mistakes, but it has also successfully taken on some incredibly thankless tasks, such as turning around the fortunes of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia.
That Crown corporation has been a financial albatross for years now, having been horribly mismanaged by the previous Liberal government. Recently, the NDP announced it was moving to a no-fault insurance system, a move that has incurred the wrath of injury-claim lawyers far and wide. But it was the right move – one that will help lower premiums for tens of thousands of drivers.
Next week, Finance Minister Carole James is expected to table another balanced budget, one that holds the line on public-sector spending. And that means there will be no extra money in it for the province’s teachers, whose contract negotiations with the government have gone sideways around their wage demands. The NDP will not budge.
For now, however, the Horgan government is preoccupied with more pressing matters.
Canadian National Railway Co. announced this week that it would be forced to shut down significant parts of its network if the protests, which have spread across the country, don’t end soon. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has also expressed his frustration, urging “authorities” to demonstrate that Canada is a country of laws, one that will not allow “mob rule” to override the wishes of those who support the pipeline, including First Nations.
How this plays out could leave a lasting imprint on John Horgan and his government.
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