The Prime Minister is in his comfort zone when he’s delivering the kind of speech that’s become his hallmark: light on substance, heavy on platitudes, and with more than a hint of lecturing folks from the other side of the political spectrum on their failings.
Unfortunately, the issue Justin Trudeau rose to address on Tuesday in the House of Commons does not lend itself to any of that. The government is instead faced with practical questions about the legalities of a gas pipeline in British Columbia, and the pressing fact of a blockaded arterial rail line in Eastern Ontario.
This is nuts-and-bolts stuff about the country’s economic and legal plumbing. It’s going to take more than political clichés to unblock the national pipes.
The PM is also most at ease when he’s invoking one of his favourite phrases, about how the relationship with Indigenous Canadians is his government’s “most important relationship.” The implied narrative is that Mr. Trudeau is on the side of Indigenous people and his opponents are on the other side.
But the challenge Mr. Trudeau returned from overseas to tackle, or be seen to be tackling, doesn’t look like that. Along the proposed route of B.C.'s Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline, as on the normally busy train tracks of the Toronto-Montreal corridor, this isn’t a story of Indigenous Canadians versus non-Indigenous Canadians. It isn’t a story of First Nations defending their land, their rights and the planet against rapacious outsiders. It’s rather more complicated than that.
In B.C., the elected Wet’suwet’en representatives back the pipeline and signed agreements bringing significant benefits to their communities, while some hereditary chiefs oppose the line. In Tyendinaga in Eastern Ontario, Chief Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte has stressed that those blocking the tracks are acting on their own, and at a press conference on Tuesday, Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon said it was time for the blockades to come down.
The simple clichés of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous don’t reflect the reality of the crisis, or the nature of the situation.
On Tuesday, after Mr. Trudeau and the other party leaders had their say in Parliament, the PM pointedly refused to invite Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to a briefing for the other opposition leaders. The PM claimed that “Mr. Scheer disqualified himself from constructive discussions with his unacceptable speech earlier today.”
Magicians call that “misdirection.” Political advisers, too.
It is true that, even if he wanted to, Mr. Trudeau could not order the police to go arrest certain people, or break up a particular demonstration. That’s not how the relationship between politicians and police works in Canada; be thankful for that. But neither can Mr. Trudeau and his government allow Canadians to feel that they are powerless, or that the rule of law is something they are overly willing to bend.
The first thing the Trudeau government has to do is to remind Canadians that the issue of the pipeline through the Wet’suwet’en community is one thing and the blockade in Eastern Ontario is another.
The former, even after a favourable B.C. Court of Appeal ruling, may still have room for discussion and negotiation. The government must not conduct itself in a way that places elected band councils in a position where they are being undermined or delegitimized, but talk is always possible.
The indefinite rail blockade is different. It involves legal questions not in dispute. There is nothing to negotiate.
The democratic right to peaceful protest is the right to stand in a public place and spread your message. It’s the right to try to persuade your fellow citizens, with banners, flyers and words. It’s a right to free speech; it isn’t the right to accost anyone, occupy anything or shut down anyone’s business.
Protesting outside Parliament? That’s constitutionally protected.
Blocking access to a legislature, as happened last week in B.C.? The Constitution obviously does not protect it, which is why a judge quickly issued an injunction that allowed for arrests.
Protesting outside a train station? Legal. Blocking train tracks? Against the law.
It would be helpful if the Trudeau government could clearly express where it, and Canada, stand. That wouldn’t be the end, but it would at least be a start.