Sometimes in a standoff, a concession is received as a sign of moderation and good faith. When that happens, it offers both sides a chance to take a step back and find a way out.
But sometimes, a concession given is simply taken. It is received as a sign of weakness, and may be. Sometimes it offers not a way out but a signpost to a broader and deeper conflict.
We are about to find out whether the offer to withdraw the RCMP from the area of protests in Wet’suwet’en territory in the interior of British Columbia, conceding a key demand of a group of hereditary chiefs, is to become the basis for lowering the temperature – or whether it is not.
The concession does not resolve the larger issues – including the question of who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en, and a land claim that despite decades of litigation and negotiation is still unsettled. But it’s a chance to get back to talking.
The federal government, after largely dodging the situation until this week, now has all hands on deck. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers have repeatedly called the blockades on train tracks across the country unacceptable and illegal, while at the same time declining to order the police to immediately break them up, and asking to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and other Indigenous leaders.
It’s a prudent approach, aiming to give time for dialogue, and hoping that if you don’t throw fuel on a fire, it can begin to extinguish itself. However, that’s a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy.
The length of time a blockade can be allowed to continue is inversely proportional to the number of people it affects, and how much it affects them. Barricades on minor roads can run indefinitely. Shutdowns of arterial rail lines cannot.
The economy can’t take it, and neither can Canadians’ sense of law and order. Power abhors a vacuum, and if citizens start to believe that government and the police do not wholly occupy it, people on both sides of the divide will eventually start scrambling to fill it.
The protest and counterprotest on a rail line in Edmonton on Wednesday was a small but worrying illustration of the dangers. A handful of people blocked the tracks, but a few hours later, people with rather different points of view showed up, announcing their intention to take down the barricades.
A masked leader of the blockaders, speaking to a CityNews reporter, was incredulous that police were simply going to stand by and do nothing as a bunch of vigilantes took down his illegal roadblock.
It was an ironic reminder of what can happen when law and order evaporate. If the police start letting you break the law to get your political point across, do not be surprised if others whose views you disagree with also take up the offer. When that happens, we all lose.
Democratic government is about channeling conflicts into peaceful places – elections, parliaments, newspapers, courtrooms. That’s Canada’s peace, order and good government.
And peace, order and good government – not to mention economic opportunity and equal protection of the law – are what many First Nations communities were historically deprived of.
The fact that 20 elected band councils along the path of the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline favour its construction, and signed on to legal agreements bringing jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term benefits to their communities, is testament to the fact that they want in on the Canadian Dream.
They aren’t asking to get out of Canada, or for lives without development or progress. Nor are they calling for national chaos. They didn’t ask for blockades across the country, many mounted by people with their own agendas.
For example, the protest on the tracks in St. Lambert, Que., against which an injunction was issued on Thursday, included a banner that reads, in French, “For a world without KKKanada.”
Back here on Planet Reality, there are two distinct and separate issues to be settled. The first is the question of governance and land claims within Wet’suwet’en territory. These issues cannot be wholly resolved this month, or even this year.
The second matter is that of the blockades. They can’t be allowed to operate on the same clock.