Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged those demonstrating in solidarity with hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en Nation to ease up blockades along rail lines on Friday, but motioned that the federal government does not have plans to order RCMP action.
“We are not a country where politicians can order the police to do something, we are a country that has confidence in its police forces and allows them to do their work in scope of these blockade,” Trudeau said, while speaking to reporters in Germany.
Trudeau said blockades that have led to disruptions for Canadian railway services have made it a “difficult week” for the country. Blockades began in support of the B.C. nation’s hereditary chiefs, who oppose the construction of a pipeline through their land.
Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said those demonstrating in solidarity with hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en Nation should “check their privilege” on Friday while speaking to reporters in Ottawa.
Scheer called on the federal government to take more definitive action in stopping blockades.
“These protesters, these activists have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege,” he said. “They need to check their privilege and let people whose jobs depend on the railway system — small businesses, farmers — do their jobs.”
Scheer said protesters are holding the Canadian economy “hostage.”
CN and Via Rail have suspended operations on large sections of their networks in response to blockades such as the one in the Belleville, Ont., area, and an injunction was granted to remove protesters. The train operators have cautioned that such disruptions could pose risks to various goods and services across the country, and lead to layoffs.
“We cannot allow a small number of activists to hold our economy hostage and threaten thousands of jobs,” Scheer said.
He added that the federal government needs to be more forceful in enforcing injunctions handed out by courts over the protests.
“I believe it’s time for the law to be enforced,” he added. “We have court orders, we have court injunctions; they need to be respected.”
Earlier on Friday, federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau also called the protests “illegal.”
However, he did not say the federal government would instruct the RCMP to begin enforcing injunctions on solidarity protesters.
The minister is meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts as well as representatives of national Indigenous organizations and stressed that he hopes there will be peaceful resolutions to the blockade disputes.
Garneau said freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are among the most cherished of rights but added that he is “deeply concerned” about the disruption of rail services.
Garneau also held similar concerns as Scheer on the stoppage of train services.
“But it is about people’s jobs and livelihoods and about the transport of key supplies like food, propane, heating oil and chemicals for water treatment, agricultural products for export and so many other products,” he said.
The Ontario Provincial Police issued a statement on Friday as well, saying they are still hoping for a “peaceful resolution.”
“The proper use of police discretion is a valid, appropriate approach to de-escalating situations such as this. The proper exercise of police discretion should not be confused with a lack of enforcement,” an email statement offered to Global News read.
“The OPP calls on those involved to abide by the court injunction and to not put public peace or anyone’s safety in jeopardy. The OPP respects the right of everyone to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but we also recognize the rights of the general public, local residents and businesses to a safe environment.”
Speaking earlier on Friday, Trudeau also said there are no easy answers to the dispute. The prime minister 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 towards 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 free and to protest,” he said.
The blockades began last week after RCMP enforced an injunction against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who were blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, a key part of the $40-billion LNG Canada export project.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the company does not have consent to build on the unceded territory. The chiefs assert title to a vast 22,000-square-kilometre area and say band councils only have authority over reserve lands.
Meanwhile, Coastal GasLink says it has signed agreements with all 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route.
— With files from the Canadian Press