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Supporters of the indigenous Wet'suwet'en Nation's hereditary chiefs stand at a railway blockade as part of protests against British Columbia's Coastal GasLink pipeline, in St Lambert, Quebec, Feb. 20, 2020.


As the Trudeau government struggles to resolve the impasse with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters over a gas pipeline, the federal Conservatives stand to reap the political benefit.

Outgoing leader Andrew Scheer and front-running leadership candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole are hammering their message:

They support the elected Wet’suwet’en chiefs and the band members who back the pipeline project because of the jobs it will bring;

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They support those premiers who are demanding an end to the blockades;

They oppose the environmental and social activists allied with the hereditary chiefs.

They stand, in other words, with most Canadians, six in 10 of whom want the blockades that have paralyzed the national rail network to come down, according to an Ipsos poll released this week. Fifty-three per cent support police intervention.

(The online survey of 1,301 Canadians conducted between Feb. 14 and 17 claims to be accurate within 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

Those who follow this issue closely will detect inconsistencies in the Conservative position. Even if the federal government wanted police to remove the blockades, solicitors-general are not supposed to direct police to act in a certain way in a certain situation. Besides, the police are under provincial, not federal, control.

But politicians with power have a way of achieving desired outcomes. On Thursday, the RCMP offered to withdraw from an outpost on Wet’suwet’en territory, which might pave the way for an end to the blockades. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that RCMP acted independently. It just so happens that their independent actions helped the federal government’s efforts to negotiate a solution.

If the withdrawal prompts an end to the blockades without shutting down construction of the Coast GasLink pipeline, then people will go back to work, the trains will run again and we will all move on.

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But the longer the Liberals fail in their efforts at appeasement – one minister meeting with blockaders for hours without result, another minister practically begging the hereditary chiefs to meet with her, without result – the more this situation harms them politically.

Since October’s election, much of the political class has focused on the inability of the Conservatives to win the election, on the campaign to oust Mr. Scheer, on the candidates – Rona Ambrose, Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre, John Baird – who chose not to run, on the Conservative unwillingness to confront climate change.

But now there are two strong leading candidates united in their opposition to appeasement. (Mr. MacKay was a cofounder of the party and one of Stephen Harper’s most senior cabinet ministers; Mr. O’Toole is an MP in the electorally critical region of Greater Toronto.)

Now it’s easier to remember that the Liberals lost the popular vote in the last election and were reduced to a minority government; that since the election there has been no sign of a coherent governing agenda, other than to win a temporary seat on the Security Council; that Mr. Trudeau, who is responsible for the revival of the Bloc Québécois and of separatist sentiment in Alberta, is back to lecturing, rather than acting.

It’s also possible to notice that this weakened Prime Minister may be having trouble whipping his caucus and cabinet into a united stand on whether to approve the Teck Resources proposal that would expand oil sands production. The Conservatives are united in supporting the project.

That said, the Conservatives have also stumbled. Mr. MacKay deleted a tweet, Wednesday, after appearing to endorse vigilantism when some people dismantled a newly created blockade in Edmonton. Mr. O’Toole’s proposed legislation to protect critical infrastructure, while laudable, may be unconstitutional.

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If the Liberals can resolve the situation without violence and without caving to anti-pipeline protests, they might even benefit, politically, for having defused a difficult and potentially dangerous situation.

The Liberals believe they can pursue Indigenous reconciliation and fight global warming, while simultaneously expanding oil and gas extraction. That approach appears to be at risk. How would Mr. O’Toole or Mr. MacKay do better? Whatever they come up with must appeal to party members, and then to the rest of us.

The current impasse is a political opportunity for the Conservatives. But nobody gets handed government. If the next leader wants to become prime minister, he’s going to have to earn it.

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