OTTAWA—The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have turned aside new requests by Ottawa to meet, holding firm on demands for the withdrawal of the RCMP and the Coastal GasLink personnel from their territory before they will agree to talks with any federal or B.C. government leaders to end the two-week old rail stoppage.
The Trudeau government has refused to publicly set a deadline for the blockades to lift, or to outline in detail its own plan of action, apart from efforts to co-ordinate with premiers, who are growing increasingly frustrated, and attempting to meet with Wet’suwet’en leaders.
However, Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday one option under discussion with the government of B.C. is to swap out the RCMP on Wet’suwet’en territory for an Indigenous police force.
“This is an issue that obviously comes under the decision of the police forces and the province where the RCMP works as a provincial police. This is exactly the kind of discussion and reflection that we are having to resolve this situation peacefully,” Trudeau said.
However Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Na’Moks, whose English name is John Ridsdale, later flatly turned down the idea of any other police force coming in.
In an exclusive interview with the Star late Wednesday, Na’Moks said the chiefs have not demanded the RCMP pull out all detachments in the northern B.C. territory, just the mobile detachment installed near the blockade site.
He said no outside police force belongs there: “Not out there, they have no reason to be out there.”
He said the withdrawal of police and company personnel is a precondition before any meetings with government ministers would be accepted.
“You can’t have that all weighing on you and make clear and concise decisions. That’s not free, prior and informed consent in any way shape or form. When we say free, well, when you’re under duress that’s not free,” he said by phone from Smithers, B.C. Wednesday.
Na’Moks also confirmed that four other hereditary chiefs were en route to Montreal to visit Mohawk communities that have supported their opposition to the pipeline by holding protests and blocking rail lines in Quebec and Ontario. He said they were invited to visit and wanted to thank them for their support.
Asked whether he believes the blockades should continue until the pipeline dispute is resolved, Na’Moks said it would contradict Wet’suwet’en law for chiefs to tell another nation what to do.
“Under our law that’s trespass,” he said. “That’s what the RCMP and Coastal GasLink is doing on our territory.”
Na’Moks also ruled out any chance the chiefs would be open to meeting with Trudeau — as they’ve demanded — while they are in Eastern Canada.
“If we’re going to do a meeting, it should be on our territory. This is what we’re talking about. He should come and see how pristine and beautiful it is. Right now I’m looking at a blue sky and sunshine with snowcapped peaks,” he said. “You won’t know what we’re trying to do unless you put feet on the ground, breathe the air, have a look at the beautiful river, and eat the food here.”
Trudeau on Wednesday faced renewed demands for concrete action from the Opposition, ranging from the Conservatives’ demand that the prime minister instruct the RCMP to dismantle the “illegal blockades,” to more concrete proposals, on the one hand from the NDP and on the other from former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau needs to meet with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs; appoint a special mediator to facilitate the conversation, adding “the RCMP need to stand down to allow these conversations and dialogues to happen.”
“Will the prime minister meet with the hereditary chiefs and appoint a special mediator?” he said.
Trudeau did not directly answer.
Instead he insisted Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett has made clear she will meet with the hereditary chiefs “at any given moment,” an offer Bennett made again directly to the chiefs in writing along with B.C.’s Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser.
A senior federal official later told the Star the government has not ruled out using a mediator but is waiting for a formal response to the offers by the federal and B.C. governments to meet the hereditary chiefs who insist the Coastal GasLink pipeline will not be built.
The source also told the Star that the federal Liberal government expects to table legislation “soon” to implement a campaign promise to implement the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous people.
In their mandate letters, the prime minister instructed his justice and Crown-Indigenous relations ministers to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the end of 2020.
Immediate tabling legislation to implement the UN declaration was one of four proposals made by former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould during an emergency debate Tuesday night on the blockades crisis.
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Now an independent MP, Wilson-Raybould called for Trudeau to fly to B.C. to get personally involved in meetings with the Wet’suwet’en on their territory, a cooling-off period in B.C. during which construction would cease and the RCMP would leave the area, and the immediate tabling of long-promised Indigenous land rights and self-governance bills.
Wilson-Raybould also made a plea to the Wet’suwet’en to take responsibility for providing clarity to Canadians about who speaks for a community that Canadians and governments understand is divided.
The developments came as Trudeau’s appeal for patience in the two-week old rail blockade appears to be wearing thin as Quebec Premier François Legault demanded Wednesday that Ottawa set a deadline to get idled trains moving again.
Adding to that urgency was news that Via Rail — with many of its train service halted — was temporarily laying off of 1,000 employees because of the “unprecedented situation.”
“In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that Via Rail . . . has to interrupt most of its services across the country,” declared Via President and CEO Cynthia Garneau.
But despite the mounting pressure, Trudeau’s government dismissed calls for a deadline to get the blockades lifted.
“I’m reluctant to put a deadline to something because I find that that’s not a very effective means of negotiation,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller – the government’s point person on talks with the Mohawk Nation in Tyendinaga, where a demonstration has stopped freight and passenger rail service — insisted that discussions are ongoing.
“The timeline of this process is something that is not something that we will negotiate or disclose in public. It would be unproductive. We work at this hour by hour at the engagement with the highest levels,” Miller said.
With layoffs mounting and the economic toll of the halted rail service adding up, premiers held a conference call Wednesday and want to talk Thursday with Trudeau to discuss a “peaceful resolution and an end to the illegal blockades,” according to a statement from Saskatchewan Premier Scott’s Moe.
Trudeau acknowledged the economic hardships exacted by the rail shutdown but signalled that the government was sticking by its strategy to negotiate a peaceful end to the disputes.
“We know that people are facing shortages. They’re facing disruptions. They’re facing layoffs. That’s unacceptable. That’s why we are going to continue working extremely hard with everyone involved to resolve the situation as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau accused the Conservatives of raising the “temperature” and branded their call for action as “overly aggressive,” saying that such an approach carried the risk of further long-term disruptions.
“We understand how difficult this is for so many people who are facing shortages and layoffs right now, but we know we need to resolve this in a way that will not create more problems months from now and over the coming years,” Trudeau said during question period.
“That is why we are taking every step necessary to resolve this constructively, peacefully and rapidly,” he said.
The Conservatives dangled the threat of a confidence motion that could bring down the minority Liberal government. While the threat was slim, Conservative MP Candice Bergen said it showed that her party has lost faith in the government’s “weak response” to the crisis.
“People are saying ‘how can this happen in Canada.’ We are a country of law … and order and rules. And so people are frustrated, and they want to know what the government’s going to do.”
Conservative MP Mark Strahl (Chilliwack Hope) said that Trudeau, who first took office in 2015, has had more than four years to make progress on Indigenous issues.
“He’s made promises to Indigenous communities about how different it was going to be with him as the prime minister. It hasn’t happened. He hasn’t resolved these long-standing issues. So the patience — patience to what end?” Strahl told reporters.
“Just simply so he can drag this out longer and hope that they get tired and go home seems to be the strategy,” he said.