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Two people have a conversation at the site of a rail stoppage on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, as part of a protest against British Columbia's Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Tyendinaga, Ontario, Canada, Feb. 16, 2020. The Liberal approach to what has turned into the greatest domestic crisis since Mr. Trudeau became Prime Minister is, to put it charitably, baffling.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

After returning from a trip to Africa, Justin Trudeau planned to leave for the Caribbean, even as blockades and protests shook the country and threatened the economy. On Sunday night, word came he had changed his mind, showing that, at the very least, his government is not possessed of a death wish.

But make no mistake: The fundamentals of the Liberal government’s domestic agenda are at risk. If Mr. Trudeau doesn’t know that, someone needs to tell him.

The Liberal approach to what has turned into the greatest domestic crisis since Mr. Trudeau became Prime Minister is, to put it charitably, baffling: a condescending plea for patience and dialogue.

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“The underlying issues did not arise yesterday; they’ve been present in this community for hundreds of years,” said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, after hours of talks Saturday with Indigenous protesters blocking a rail line near Belleville, Ont. The protesters support those members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia. The blockade remains despite a court order demanding that it disperse.

“We’re a nation of people that have stopped talking to each other,” Mr. Miller told reporters. "We tweet. We make statements on Facebook. We go around asking, condemning, but we’re not talking.”

Defenders of the protesters say Canadians must put up with some inconvenience, as the First Nations demand that the rest of Canada confront their grievances.

But layoffs and business losses are not inconvenience. They are no money to pay the mortgage. They are less growth and fewer taxes to pay for schools and hospitals.

Lest anyone harbour other hopes, campaigns of obstructive civil disobedience generally begin with broad public sympathy for the cause of the protest. But that sympathy eventually turns to impatience and anger if there is no progress toward resolution.

Let’s be clear: This is no time for strong-arm tactics. We need to ignore those who call for federal or provincial intervention through the RCMP or Ontario Provincial Police. “It is wrong for a minister to direct the police about a specific law enforcement decision such as enforcing the injunction,” Kent Roach, professor of law at University of Toronto, said in an e-mail exchange.

Governments long ago should have issued general directives and guidance on to how police should respond to Indigenous protests, but they dodged the issue. “We should not wait until volatile incidents erupt, but rather provide general and public policies beforehand," he wrote. "But we have not.”

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Noura Karazivan, professor of law at University of Montreal, points out that Canadian governments historically have wrangled over federal-provincial issues, ignoring Indigenous Canadians as partners in Confederation and ignoring, as well, the centrality of Indigenous laws and customs to their culture.

Such neglect "demonstrates the limits of the legal system as we know it,” she said in an interview.

Federal and provincial governments must confront these challenges, which they have ignored for decades. In the meantime, we have a situation.

The Prime Minister appears remarkably sanguine about that situation, given that it is putting his governing agenda at risk simultaneously on all three fronts. The Liberals promised reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians, action to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement on climate, and responsible expansion of energy exports.

But progress toward reconciliation is collapsing over Indigenous opposition to pipelines. That opposition puts energy exports at risk. Meanwhile, environmental activists join with Indigenous protesters to lambaste what they see as this government’s hypocrisy on climate change.

Just what element of this government’s mandate is going well?

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The Liberals still have political resources. The Conservatives are in the midst of a leadership race, and out of action until the end of June. The NDP is likely to support this minority government, as long as the Liberals put negotiation and dialogue ahead of brute force. In the short term, at least, patience and moderation are the best approach to contain a volatile, dangerous situation.

But every day in which this situation does not improve, it gets worse. Beyond a certain point, people are going to lose their patience completely. No one should want to see that day.

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