Peace, order and good government. In Canada today, all three of those elements are in short supply.
Blockades have shut down the country’s entire rail system for over a week. Hundreds of workers have been laid off, and more will be in the coming days. Demonstrators barricaded the B.C. legislature and roughed up employees and journalists. Protests have snarled traffic in downtown Toronto and at the Canada-U.S. border. The economic damage so far is estimated at $400 million and counting.
So on Tuesday, all eyes were on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons. Canadians on both sides of the barricades looked to him for leadership, a path forward. What did they get?
“This is a critical moment. This is about things that matter. I get it. … Today I am formally extending my hand in partnership and trust. … We are creating a space for peaceful and honest dialogue. … Patience may be in short supply, and that makes it more valuable than ever.”
In other words, bupkes.
No plan other than talking. No timeframe for that talking. No acknowledgement of the severity of the economic damage being done. Not even a call to those who are causing the damage to stand down, dismantle the barricades in exchange for engaging in that dialogue. Not a recognition that the Wet’suwet’en are not unanimous on this issue, and that all sides should be at that table.
Why this milquetoast speech? Because Trudeau is afraid. Not of the repercussions of the use of force, as he claims, but the repercussions to him personally, at the ballot box, on social media, and at whatever town hall he dares hold next.
The current standoff over the construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in B.C. represents the perfect storm for the Liberals, and one that is rich in irony. It is the marriage of the two constituencies Trudeau courted more than any other in the 2015 election: Indigenous people and the environmental movement. Together, they have become a force that threatens to derail not only Canada’s economy, but also, quite possibly, his government.
We saw the preview to this movie in 2012. That year, the Idle No More movement rose up to protest Bill C-45, an omnibus bill that modified both the Indian Act and environmental legislation. Idle No More held roughly 50 rallies and demonstrations across the country. Chief Theresa Spence went on a hunger strike.
In January 2013, then prime minister Stephen Harper met with members of the Assembly of First Nations and its then national chief Shawn Atleo to put an end to the conflict. The movement faded from public view but kept working, forming new alliances with other groups, including environmental organizations. In 2019, it called for solidarity with “Canadians of conscience” to oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project in northern British Columbia.
The 2020 version is like Idle on steroids. Today, Indigenous rights have become solidly conflated with environmental rights, and the whole #FridaysForFuture crowd is engaged. They are national, organized and ready to rumble. And there’s nothing like a big bad pipeline project to rally the troops.
The additional irony, of course, is that this isn’t an oil pipeline. It’s a natural gas pipeline, which is supposed to ship liquefied natural gas to a terminal in Kitimat, from which it will be exported to Asian markets to replace far dirtier energy such as coal. Project opponents claim that if the natural gas were to spill, however, it would irretrievably damage salmon-rich waterways where the Wet’suwet’en have fished for generations.
In other words, this is a NIMBY issue: never mind that this would help reduce carbon emissions overall, we don’t want it on our territory. Which, of course, isn’t legally Wet’suwet’en territory, because it has never been formally recognized as such.
The hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline call the 22,000 square kilometres unceded land, but the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark Delgamuukw case states that legal title still has to be obtained through the courts or negotiations with government. That has never happened. Nonetheless, the chiefs act as if it is a fait accompli, and maintain that the RCMP isn’t welcome to enforce an injunction against their anti-pipeline protest on the territory.
Never mind that, according to hereditary chief Theresa Tait-Day, 85 per cent of the Wet’suwet’en community supports the project, that the elected band council voted in favour of it, and that many members of the community want the economic benefits linked to the pipeline.
The environmental movement would have Canadians believe that Indigenous people are all “land defenders,” standing athwart of the big bad energy companies. Activists have swamped social media with images and TikTok videos to give the impression that this is a massive movement, sweeping the country. And naturally, the greater this impression, the more they succeed in attracting people to their cause.
At the same time, however, there are millions of Canadians who do not support the protests. They want rail service restored, propane to heat their homes and to be able to drive home after work without a two-hour delay. But they are not organized. There is no one planning a “Where’s-my-Train?” rally. So they turn to their elected officials to do something. And so far, that something is … not much.
That’s because Trudeau is politically beholden to the protesters. He already betrayed them twice in his first mandate, by demoting Indigenous Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and buying the Trans Mountain pipeline. Both actions shredded his credibility and contributed to his slide into minority status in the 2019 election.
Now Trudeau is facing not only the Wet’suwet’en crisis but the decision on approving the Teck Frontier mine in Alberta, an oil sands development that would bring thousands of much-needed jobs to that province, but that will blow whatever hope he has of meeting 2050 emissions targets.
Trudeau is lucky that the Conservatives are without a permanent leader at the moment because if they weren’t, a non-confidence vote would be a tempting prospect. But that is no excuse for inaction. He has to convene Indigenous leaders, like Harper did, but insist that as a quid pro quo, the trains start running again.
He also has to ensure that both sides of the Wet’suwet’en are represented in this conversation. He has to acknowledge that this is their issue, not that of the environmental activists who are piling on their bandwagon. In the bigger picture, Trudeau needs to speed up the settlement of land claims to avoid this situation in the future.
And Trudeau needs to take real steps to dismantle the Indian Act, an archaic piece of legislation that impedes economic advancement and progress for Indigenous Canadians. Anything less, and Canadians will be stuck watching the sequel to this drama in years to come.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.