OTTAWA—The federal government insists it has no role in the resolution of a pipeline construction dispute in British Columbia, even as the resulting Indigenous protest movement disrupts travel and commerce across the country.
Ottawa argues the Coastal GasLink pipeline project’s standoff with certain Wet’suwet’en activists is an issue for the company and the B.C. government to resolve.
After the company got another injunction from B.C. Superior Court, and the RCMP moved in to enforce it and take down the barricades, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs issued a national call for solidarity protests.
Cross-country demonstrations — by other First Nations groups and climate change activists — sprang up in sympathy with the B.C. Indigenous protesters, and are fast spiralling into a national test of wills.
For now, federal and provincial governments — and the prime minister — have urged dialogue and calm.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking from Senegal, said, “We recognize the important democratic right — and will always defend it — of peaceful protest.”
“But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.”
But whose law? The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and supporters say the unceded territory means their ancient uncodified laws — passed down through oral traditions and history — must prevail.
And who should be talking to whom?
The British Columbia government is trying to work through the complexities of hereditary leadership, which opposes the project, versus elected band council leadership. In the region, many band councils have signed benefit agreements seemingly in support of the project.
Premier John Horgan acknowledged Wednesday that it’s been a challenge. “There’s a misunderstanding broadly of what hereditary leadership is and we’re working hard to figure that out with the Wet’suwet’en and others,” said Horgan.
And how should companies like Via Rail, their passengers, and CN freight shippers remain calm in the face of blockades that have shut down interprovincial rail lines and ports, and, the government acknowledges, are causing real economic damage?
On Wednesday Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was blocked from entering Halifax city hall by protesters vowing to shut down Canada, as the social media hashtag “#shutdownCanada” bounced around online.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Tuesday it was “dangerous and illegal” for Indigenous groups and their supporters to block rail lines near Belleville, Ont., Halifax, Montreal and New Hazelton, B.C. It’s not just passenger and cargo trains that have been cancelled. Ports in B.C. have been blocked.
The B.C. legislature was surrounded on Tuesday, but continued to operate behind barricaded doors, a stand in the face of protesters who went too far, Horgan suggested.
“Peaceful demonstration is fundamental to our success as a democracy,” Horgan told a news conference Wednesday. “But to have a group of people say to others you are illegitimate, you are not allowed in here, you are somehow a sellout to the values of Canadians is just plain wrong, and I want to underline that.”
For now, Ottawa is watching, but hesitant to step in, mindful that federal intervention could escalate tensions, not resolve them.
Lucky for Trudeau, Parliament is not sitting this week. Next week, it could be a different story.
A senior federal official, speaking on background to discuss the federal view of the situation, said the struggle is rooted in B.C. and involves a pipeline entirely within that province and as such there is no federal jurisdiction over it.
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Yes, Ottawa is watching closely, and is also keenly aware that there are differences within the Wet’suwet’en nation over the project and whether it should proceed.
And the federal government also sees other First Nations who are not directly involved using the dispute to air broader grievances. Sympathetic blockades have popped up in other jurisdictions, but government officials say the responsibility for enforcing public safety in those jurisdictions also lies with those provinces.
Companies are getting injunctions to provide relief from the blockades and police are on scene.
The Trudeau government is privately expressing complete confidence in B.C. to handle the dispute given that province’s long history of dealing with First Nations and reconciliation efforts, however Ottawa has not ruled out serving as a backchannel or helping out if requested by the province.
B.C. did reach out to former federal NDP MPs Murray Rankin and Nathan Cullen to try to broker a compromise.
Cullen said in an interview that so far his efforts have not been successful, though they may open up avenues for dialogue in the coming days and weeks.
Cullen says it’s not enough for Trudeau to call for dialogue; he says the prime minister has to get involved. “The issue of rights and title of course involve both levels of government and ultimately the resolution, I believe, of this conflict will happen at a table. It won’t be resolved on a rail line. It won’t be resolved on Facebook. It will ideally, because they almost always do, be resolved at a negotiating table of some kind.”
And Cullen says Trudeau has to live up to his commitment to advance reconciliation.
“This is the hard work, this is not a speech, this is not a moment, this is the hard work, and it’s going to be a bit messy and challenging but the easy stuff’s all been done,” he said.
Yet senior officials in Ottawa are mindful that a federal intervention could not only escalate the situation, it may send the exact wrong signal, that to get action, all one has to do is block a rail line.
And most important, in B.C. and in Ottawa, politicians insist it is not for them to order the police to act.
“That’s not my role, that’s why we have courts,” Horgan said Wednesday.
“When we have disputes, that’s the best way for them to be addressed. And law enforcement is in a very difficult position whether it be here…at points around British Columbia or indeed across Canada, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to find that fine line between protecting the rights of people to protest and also the rights of citizens to get on with their lives and I don’t have a magic answer to that.
“I do not want to live in a society where politicians tell the police to go move people along because it’s convenient for them.”
In a CBC interview, one Wet’suwet’en resident, Bonnie George, speaking from Smithers, B.C., said she supported the pipeline project and urged other protesters across the country to “Back off and let us deal with this ourselves.”
George said that traditionally the Wet’suwet’en people have been “experts in conflict resolution” and that the only way to resolve it is to harken back to that tradition.