OTTAWA—The federal government says negotiations remain the key to peacefully resolving a paralyzing rail shutdown even as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pushed Friday for police action to immediately remove rail blockades that have halted freight and passenger trains.
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while travelling in Germany that there are no easy answers to the dispute. In his most extensive public comments since anti-pipeline protests began affecting freight and passenger rail traffic across Canada nine days ago, Trudeau said the path forward is “fraught with challenges and obstacles to overcome.”
“You need to know we have failed our Indigenous peoples over generations, over centuries. And there is no quick fix to it,” Trudeau said, adding that all parties must move toward reconciliation.
“We also are, obviously, a country of laws. And making sure that those laws are enforced, even as there is, of course, freedom to demonstrate and to protest,” he said. “Getting that balance right and wrapping it up in the path forward … is really important.”
Scheer urged more forceful action.
He insisted the federal minister of public safety has the power to “direct the RCMP” to enforce injunctions by the pipeline construction company in B.C. and the rail companies which have an injunction to halt the blockade near Belleville.
Scheer said he knows that “it’s not all RCMP jurisdiction,” but he still insisted that the prime minister and the minister of public safety could order the force to intervene “in a lot of places.”
The RCMP in B.C. is acting under contract to the provincial NDP government of Premier John Horgan, who has also turned aside demands that he order the police in, saying that is not done in a democratic state where police are independent of government. In Ontario, the Ontario Provincial Police have jurisdiction and are keeping a watchful eye on a small Mohawk protest near Belleville which has halted train traffic.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau acknowledged Friday the mounting economic toll caused by a handful of protests that escalated over the last week but insisted “dialogue” holds the best hope of a lasting resolution to the crisis.
“I am deeply concerned by the demonstrations that are deliberately preventing the operation of our railways,” Garneau said in Toronto.
“We are hoping that we’re going to be able to resolve this situation as quickly as possible,” he said.
A blockade that had cropped up in Manitoba was lifted Thursday, but Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says his government will seek injunctions against any more that might be erected in the province.
One blockade was set up for 24 hours this week west of Winnipeg, and protesters are threatening more action in the days to come.
Pallister is using the blockades as the basis for a fundraising email sent to Progressive Conservative supporters, in which he promises to crack down on any more disruptions.
“We will stand up for the freedoms and rights of all people. But we won’t stand back while two-tier justice happens in our province,” reads the email issued Thursday night.
A series of weeklong protests in support of Wet’suwet’en chiefs in British Columbia escalated sharply Thursday when CN announced that it was suspending all freight service on its eastern network because of rail blockades. That in turn prompted Via Rail to scrap service on its entire network.
“The rule of law must prevail,” said Garneau. “If we’re talking about an injunction in a province, that injunction must be enforced by the province but at the same time, one must consider the ways we need to proceed in delicate situations such as this,” he told reporters in Toronto.
Garneau several times mentioned past stand-offs at Caledonia and Ipperwash, making clear that those bitter stand-offs over Indigenous land disputes are on the minds of provincial and federal officials as they weigh the best course forward.
“They have to take into account some history … it is their decision about how to approach that but the injunctions have to be respected,” Garneau said.
Garneau held up the removal of a blockade in New Hazelton, B.C. as evidence that dialogue works. That blockade of a CN rail line was removed after provincial and federal officials agreed to meet with local Indigenous leaders.
In British Columbia, protesters blocked the B.C. legislature earlier in the week, and have threatened more protests of government buildings in Victoria Friday, but late Thursday a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted an injunction against further blockades at the legislature.
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All week, the federal government had been wary of any intervention, leaving the growing unrest to provincial officials to handle.
But the escalating crisis is forcing their hands as effects of the rail shutdown ripple through the economy.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller reached out to Mohawk leaders in Ontario over the blockade near Belleville and Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, has agreed, along with B.C.’s Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser, to meet with the Wet’suwet’in and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs in northern B.C.
No date has been set for that meeting.
Scheer was asked about the possible escalation of tensions if Ottawa was to act on his recommendation to “direct the RCMP” to act.
He acknowledged there are risks tensions can “boil over,” but insisted that the blockades had to be dealt with urgently “so things don’t escalate.”
“Nobody wants to see any violence. I believe that early intervention by law enforcement, by enforcing the law can help prevent that before these types of protests escalate to a point where that is a greater concern,” said Scheer, adding “But it seems pretty simple to me, if you’re a law enforcement agency, you should enforce the law.”
Then Scheer dialed back his rhetoric that the Trudeau government should tell the police how to conduct operations. “It’s not up to politicians to direct the RCMP or other law enforcements (sic) into how to enforce the law but I think it’s incredibly important that law enforcement enforces the law. It seems pretty simple to me, if you’re a law enforcement agency, you should enforce the law.”
Scheer says there are “ideologically motivated protesters that in many cases have no connection at all with the First Nations community” at the heart of the issue, and yet who are impacting the jobs of up to 6,000 railway workers.
“These activists may have the luxury of spending days at a time but they need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway system and small businesses, farmers, do their jobs.”
“These blockades are illegal,” said Scheer. He said for many protesters, “this is just a warm-up act,” and that they want to “shut down the energy sector.”
“We have court orders and court injunctions, they need to be respected,” said Scheer.
Scheer says Trudeau is missing an opportunity to show leadership and should come back to deal with it. (Trudeau is due back overnight at 1 a.m. from the Munich security conference after an eight-day trip to Africa, Kuwait, and Germany.)
The activists at the two camps in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory this week were mostly members of the local First Nation and their supporters who highlighted as their main grievances the litany of entrenched inequities between Indigenous peoples in Canada and the overall population. These include massive overrepresentation in Canadian prisons and child welfare systems, a lack of basic infrastructure to provide necessities like clean drinking water in remote communities, and a history of subjugation that includes decades of family separation in a residential school system that a national commission ruled in 2015 was “cultural genocide.”