Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it is “past time” for a resolution to rail blockades that have interrupted VIA Rail service, shut down railroads, and temporarily blocked borders in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation for nearly two weeks.
But he offered no clear answers for what action the government is willing to take to move things forward other than being available to speak with protesters.
“People are troubled by what they’ve been witnessing this past week … They’re asking themselves what is happening in this country. They’re asking what lies ahead – for themselves, for their communities, for Canada,” he said.
“They know that these protests are serious, that this is a critical moment for the future of our country. So do I. On all sides, people are upset and frustrated. I get it, because this is about things that matter.
“It is time – past time – for this situation to be resolved. But what we are facing was not created overnight.”
Trudeau’s speech to the House of Commons comes after nationwide protests broke out nearly two weeks ago in solidarity with the fight of some hereditary chiefs from Wet’suwet’en First Nation in B.C. against the Coastal GasLink pipeline slated to be built through the community’s traditional territory.
While the elected band councils from that and surrounding communities support the project, some hereditary chiefs oppose it and have for months maintained a blockade at several points along the proposed route.
RCMP have been removing parts of that blockade and arresting protesters there in accordance with a court injunction.
But those arrests over the past month sparked a rail blockade two weeks ago by some members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk community near Belleville, Ont.
That forced Via Rail to shut down nationwide train service and CN Rail to close its Eastern Canadian network.
Limited service was restored by Via Rail on Tuesday along the Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, which is not being blockaded.
A similar protest briefly shut down the border crossing to the U.S. at Thousand Islands Bridge just east of Kingston, Ont., but that has since reopened.
Other protests across the country have intermittently blocked access to government buildings, including the B.C. Legislature.
Businesses and industry groups have repeatedly raised concerns that the shutdown is hurting supply chains across the country and raising the risk of shortages of propane and chlorine, which is commonly used in water treatment plants.
“I know that people’s patience is running short. We need to find a solution and we need to find it now,” Trudeau said, but warned that his government doesn’t want to take any action that could escalate the tensions.
“There are those who would want us to act in haste, who want us to boil this down to slogans and ignore complexities, who think using force is helpful. It is not. Patience may be in short supply but that makes it more valuable than ever.”
Throughout his speech, Trudeau was heckled by other members of the House of Commons.
And when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer rose to give his response, he slammed the prime minister for not denouncing the blockades and presenting a clear action plan for how he would move forward.
“That was the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history,” Scheer said.
“The prime minister’s statement was a complete abdication of responsibility and a failure of leadership.”
Just a few hours later, Trudeau met with the leaders from the Bloc Quebecois, the NDP and the Green Party to discuss the way forward.
But Trudeau told reporters he did not invite Scheer, saying his views were not appropriate.
“Mr. Scheer disqualified himself from constructive discussions with his unacceptable speech earlier today,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office said that meeting focused on finding a “peaceful resolution.”
“He didn’t invite the Conservatives because there was absolutely nothing constructive whatsoever in what they said today,” said Ann-Clara Vaillancourt.
“Their only solution is force and aggression, which is exactly what would make this worse.”
Scheer has said he would direct the RCMP to remove the blockades if he were in government.
While that power does technically exist, it has not been frequently used and carries with it the risk of being accused of political interference in policing.
The federal government also has the authority to send in the military under the Emergency Measures Act but has said it believes using that power would escalate the situation and potentially put lives at risk.
An emergency debate in the House of Commons that focused on the matter continued until late Tuesday night.
Members of Parliament took turns criticizing Trudeau during the debate for past failed attempts at Indigenous reconciliation.
“We have landed in a predicament that can’t be fixed by police action,” NDP MP Taylor Bachrach said during the meeting. “If we listen closely, what we can hear is that there’s too much of a gap between what the government says about Indigenous Peoples and its actions.”
Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said there was “undeniable truth” that self-determination was a better option and urged his government to take responsibility for its regressive policies
Miller previously met with some of the protesters blocking the railroad near Belleville over the weekend and told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson that he believed “modest progress” had been made.
But the blockade remains in place and he would not say what recommendations he offered to Trudeau as a result of that meeting.
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a press conference on Tuesday that industry and governments across the country must work with the Wet’suwet’en people to reach a resolution.
— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun and David Lao