OTTAWA—Justin Trudeau issued a public appeal for patience Tuesday, warning that Canada faces a “critical moment” as behind the scenes, cabinet ministers held “hour-by-hour” discussions with Indigenous leaders to end the crippling demonstrations that have stopped rail traffic.
In an address to the House of Commons, Trudeau acknowledged the frustrations caused by the snarled rail traffic since Feb. 6 but warned against force to get the trains moving again.
“We need to resolve this through dialogue and mutual respect,” he said.
“There are those who would want us to act in haste, who want us to boil this down to slogans and ignore the complexities, who think that using force is helpful. It is not,” Trudeau said.
Part of the prime minister’s strategy is to win over opposition politicians and premiers to the government’s strategy of negotiation in a bid to dampen political rhetoric that could inflame tensions.
That strategy unfolded Tuesday when Trudeau and several of cabinet ministers met with opposition leaders — Bloc Québécois Yves-François Blanchet, Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, to explain the government’s approach to obtain a “peaceful resolution” to the crisis.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — the leader of the Official Opposition — was pointedly excluded from the Parliament Hill meeting. Trudeau said that Scheer “disqualified” himself from the meeting because of his “unacceptable” speech in the Commons just hours earlier.
In that speech, Scheer condemned Trudeau’s handling of the crisis as a “complete abdication” and branded those responsible for the blockades as “radical activists.”
He later dismissed Trudeau’s meeting with other leaders as “smoke and mirrors” and a communications “exercise.”
“That is the real story, the lack of action, the weak response that we saw from this prime minister,” Scheer told reporters.
Trudeau has been trying to defuse the political rhetoric in recent days during his outreach to provincial leaders including Quebec Premier François Legault, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and frequent talks with B.C. Premier John Horgan as he buys time for Ottawa to negotiate a lifting of the blockades.
“We are creating a space for peaceful, honest dialogue with willing partners,” the prime minister told the Commons Tuesday.
In a Sunday call with Ford, for example, Trudeau discussed the “significant impacts” of the blockades and agreed on the need to restore rail service while “ensuring that the situation is resolved in a peaceful manner and that dialogue can take place to address underlying issues,” according to a summary of the call released by Trudeau’s office.
For his part, Ford said he pressed Trudeau for a “clear plan” on how to clear the blockade but one that found “common ground” to achieve a resolution.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that she has been speaking to the premiers. “I think it would be fair to say that all Canadian leaders, whether they are federal leaders, whether they are provincial leaders, whether they are mayors, whether they are Indigenous leaders, we have a shared interest in de-escalation,” she said Tuesday.
Yet Trudeau’s comments Tuesday also betrayed his own frustration on a day when CN announced temporary layoffs, driving home the mounting economic toll of stalled trains and raising the question how much longer the blockades can remain.
“I know that people’s patience is running short. We need to find a solution and we need to find it now,” he said.
Sensitive to the optics, Trudeau scrapped plans to attend a meeting of Caribbean leaders this week in Barbados and instead spent the weekend in private meetings and on the phone calls. That included a meeting of cabinets ministers Monday and Tuesday and a fresh sense of urgency to find a fix.
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The task of negotiating a resolution has fallen to Carolyn Bennett and Marc Miller.
Bennett, a veteran cabinet minister who has held an Indigenous portfolio since 2015, is leading the federal government’s approach with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, whose opposition to the construction of the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline set in motion sympathy demonstrations.
She was in Victoria over the weekend and, together with Scott Fraser, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, were ready to meet with the hereditary Wet’suwet’en leaders at the “soonest opportunity.”
Bennett said Tuesday that she has talked to two of the chiefs and efforts are underway to schedule a meeting with the broader leadership.
“We are now trying to establish again a conversation with other hereditary chiefs and eventually be able to have an invitation to have a meeting in the community with the hereditary chiefs,” Bennett said.
“There is not a lot of trust and there is an ongoing difficulty,” Bennett said.
The leaders proposed a meeting at the end of the month but Bennett said one is sought as “soon as possible.”
“We are waiting for their invitation to have that meeting,” she said.
Miller is the government’s point person in talking with the Mohawk First Nation, where activists have set up a camp beside a main CN rail line east of Belleville, stopping freight and passenger service.
The Montreal MP, who speaks some Mohawk, held a lengthy meeting Saturday with Mohawk leaders and emerged saying there had been “modest” progress.
“They have grievances that stand in solidarity with the people of Wet’suwet’en and therefore we are trying to establish the conditions for defusing,” Miller said Tuesday.
Later, Miller told CBC News that he has an “open line of communication, whether it’s text, email, phone,” with the Mohawk leadership.
Miller said the “urgency” of the situation puts “us on an hour-by-hour conversation, not a day-to-day conversation. These are ongoing discussions.”