OTTAWA—It appears the long-sought meeting between government ministers and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs is back on, just hours after hopes for a sit-down crumbled over the chiefs’ refusal to call for calm as blockades and solidarity demonstrations rage on across the country.
Carolyn Bennett, the federal Crown-Indigenous relations minister, flew to British Columbia Wednesday night and posted on social media Thursday that she was en route to the northern town of Smithers for “truly important meetings” with her B.C. government counterpart and the hereditary chiefs.
Wet’suwet’en Chief Na’Moks did not immediately respond to questions from the Star Thursday morning, but he was quoted in various media reports stating the desired meeting that remained elusive just hours earlier was now scheduled to occur.
B.C. Premier John Horgan’s office said early Thursday morning that the prospect of the meeting now looked “promising.”
For days, as rail blockades snarled rail traffic and prompted temporary layoffs for 1,500 train company workers, the federal and B.C. governments have been offering to sit down with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. The chiefs’ longstanding opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline flared into a nationwide solidarity movement after RCMP officers arrested 28 people who were blocking construction of the project along a remote logging road in traditional Wet’suwet’en territory.
Until Thursday, the nation’s traditional leadership had refused to meet with Bennett and Fraser until they were satisfied that RCMP had withdrawn from the area where the arrests occurred. They also called for a halt to pipeline construction and for Coastal GasLink employees to leave their territory.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several federal ministers expressed optimism that the meeting was on the cusp of happening. But those hopes seemed to crumble late at night, when the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs accused the B.C. and federal governments of “abruptly” cancelling the planned sit-down.
Officials from the B.C. and federal governments were quick to challenge that characterization, with one official from the prime minister’s office stating that it was the chiefs who rescinded an invitation to meet late Wednesday.
Dinize Ste ohn tsiy, a wing chief of the Wet’suwet’en who is also known as Rob Alfred, told the Star Wednesday night he was part of the discussions amongst the hereditary leadership during the day. He said they were very close to a deal to finally agree to a face-to-face meeting with government emissaries, but that the federal government pulled out when the chiefs said they would not call on activists who have blocked rail lines and staged rallies in cities across the country to de-escalate their demonstrations.
“It wasn’t even a sticking point it was a deal breaker because we had basically the deal done to meet,” he told the Star by phone from B.C.
“Once the federal government found out that they won’t publicy ask other nations to stop supporting us, they said talks are off.”
In an emailed statement Wednesday night, B.C. Premier John Horgan’s office expressed regret about the situation, stating it is “unfortunate” that they had not been able to agree to a meeting with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
“We had hoped the hereditary chiefs would agree to a period of peace and respect during the talks, which would include encouraging their supporters to remove blockades,” the statement said.
“We remain interested in meeting with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and will continue to engage with them and the Federal Government in hopes of finding a resolution.”
An official from the B.C. government who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the sticking point was over the question of whether the Wet’suwet’en chiefs would call on other demonstrators to stand down.
Another official from the federal government, who agreed to speak on background, said Ottawa expected a meeting was imminent after the Wet’suwet’en chiefs invited Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to travel to their northern B.C. territory for a meeting.
“Of course there would be an understanding that, yeah, we’re going to call for calm and focus on a path forward that’s peaceful,” the official said. “There would have been an understanding that all parties involved would want a peaceful and productive outcome.”
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The off-again, on-again arrangement occurred as the government continued to emphasize the need for dialogue and urged demonstrators to take down barricades blocking highways and railroad tracks. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said local police are responsible for upholding the law, after Mohawk activists in Tyendinaga, Ont. were seen standing in front of a moving train, throwing rocks at it, and placing flaming tires on the tracks.
Meanwhile, demonstrations supporting the Wet’suwet’en continued across Canada. Indigenous youth in Victoria said from the steps of the B.C. legislature that they will occupy ministry offices and rail lines to hold all levels of government accountable to Indigenous peoples. And in Kahnawake, Que., Mohawk demonstrators reinforced their blockade of Canadian Pacific rail tracks with concrete barriers and rocks, with Grand Chief Joseph Norton stating the local Mohawk nation is considering filing a legal challenge of the court injunction to clear the tracks.
In Winnipeg, local police were reportedly investigating graffiti sprayed outside the Manitoba RCMP headquarters and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal, the Liberal MP for Saint Boniface—Saint Vital, told reporters on Parliament Hill that his constituency office was also vandalized. Photos posted by CTV News Winnipeg showed red graffiti sprayed across the office windows that said: “Shut Down KKKanada” and “U Fail Us.”
“It’s disappointing when that happens, because the way out of this issue is through dialogue, not vandalizing something or violence,” Vandal said. “We need to talk to each other, and we need to set the right stage and the right table for that.”