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Wet’suwet’en protests: House of Commons concludes emergency debate over rail blockades

An emergency meeting debate concluded at the House of Commons in Ottawa Tuesday night over the ongoing rail blockades and Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests that have spilled out across Canada.

The debate was called by the NDP to discuss the federal government’s responsibility in addressing human rights and Indigenous sovereignty — issues at the heart of the demonstrations in Wet’suwet’en territory.

Members of Parliament took turns criticizing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the debate for past failed attempts at Indigenous reconciliation. NDP MP Leah Gazan accused the prime minister of “laughing” at protesters, while others called for action.

READ MORE: Indigenous land conflicts to persist unless sovereignty addressed, Wilson-Raybould says

“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.”

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Gord Johns, another NDP MP, said the Liberals should be “ashamed of themselves.”

“The cost of not taking action is killing people,” he said. “That’s why people are rising up against this country.”

Despite calls for the Liberals to remove the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from Wet’suwet’en territory, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett stressed that the Government of Canada “cannot direct the RCMP.”

‘Human rights are not a partisan issue’: NDP MP Leah Gazan
‘Human rights are not a partisan issue’: NDP MP Leah Gazan

“The presence of the RCMP has been articulated as a problem for the hereditary chiefs and many of the members of the community. We have articulated that and we want to help remove these obstacles,” she said.

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said there was “undeniable truth” that self-determination — the right for all people to determine their own economic, social and cultural development — was a better option and urged his government to take responsibility for its regressive policies.

The Liberal MP added self-governing Indigenous peoples have “better socio-economic outcomes” because they know how to best support their people.

“We have a number of people who are fighting for their rights, they’re fighting for a peaceful solution and we need to start listening to them,” he said.

Safety of all is ‘primary importance’: Indigenous Services Minister on Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests
Safety of all is ‘primary importance’: Indigenous Services Minister on Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests

But Conservative MP Cathy McLeod said the solidarity protests were less about human rights, instead calling them a “dress rehearsal” for any Trans Mountain pipeline protests in the future.

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“The current government has allowed something to fester that they didn’t pay attention to,” she said. “It lays at their feet.”

Jamie Schmale, another Conservative MP, said some protesters have “no connection to this country” and accused them of pretending to advocate for the Wet’suwet’en because they weren’t Indigenous.

“A minority imposing their will on the majority is causing this problem,” Schmale said.

Conservative MP reads Indigenous statements allegedly in favour of Coastal GasLink pipeline
Conservative MP reads Indigenous statements allegedly in favour of Coastal GasLink pipeline

Conservative MP Tim Uppal criticized the Liberal government’s approach to the situation, and said he doesn’t think enough is being done for workers feeling the economic impact of what he described as “illegal” blockades.

Earlier Tuesday, Trudeau said it was “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 Nation for nearly two weeks.

He offered no clear answers for what action the government would be willing to take to move things forward other than being available to speak with protesters.

Conservatives say Liberals aren’t taking workers into consideration during heated debate on railway blockades
Conservatives say Liberals aren’t taking workers into consideration during heated debate on railway blockades

Meanwhile, National Chief Perry Bellegarde told reporters in Ottawa that governments and industry have to give the time and space to work with the Wet’suwet’en people.

“We say we want to de-escalate and we want dialogue,” he said.

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“And I say our people are taking action because they want to see action — and when they see positive action by the key players, when they see a commitment to real dialogue to address this difficult situation, people will respond in a positive way.”

Tensions between the government and the Wet’suwet’en Nation have been escalating since Dec. 31, when British Columbia’s Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an expanded injunction that established an exclusion zone against protesters interfering with the construction of a $6.6-billion pipeline.

READ MORE: Trudeau says rail blockades need to be resolved but offers no clear plan

If completed, the 670-kilometre pipeline is expected to carry natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a massive export plant being built near Kitimat, passing through the nation’s unceded territory.

The project has the support of 20 elected band council members — but not by the territory’s hereditary chiefs, who have maintained a blockade at several points along the proposed route.

Protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en Nation shut down the CN rail network in eastern Canada, suspended most Via Rail passenger service, and temporarily blocked traffic on streets and bridges and at ports in multiple cities for several days, forcing Via Rail to shut down nationwide train service and CN Rail to close its Eastern Canadian network.

Scheer slams Trudeau on rail crisis: All talk and no action
Scheer slams Trudeau on rail crisis: All talk and no action

Limited service was restored by Via Rail on Tuesday along the Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, which is not being blockaded. The train service company said it expects to resume partial passenger service Thursday between Ottawa and Quebec City, including a stop in Montreal.

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In a statement to Global News Tuesday, CN Rail said it would be laying off approximately 450 of its Eastern Canadian operational staff, including employees working at Autoport in Eastern Passage, Moncton, Charny and Montreal.

“With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protesters,” they said.

They added the layoffs were “regrettable,” as it was for reasons beyond their control, but said they were “well set up for recovery” once the blockades end.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available. 

— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and The Canadian Press.