A prominent B.C. politician and First Nations leader is warning that ongoing railroad blockades by people claiming to support the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ fight against a pipeline project are setting reconciliation back decades — and raising the risk of violence for all Indigenous Canadians.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, B.C. Liberal MLA Ellis Ross said he is already hearing of cases of Indigenous people not involved in any of the blockades being confronted and threatened and said the situation makes him “very concerned.”
“It’s already happening,” he said.
“Aboriginal people are already in grocery stores getting confronted by people that just want to go back to work, they don’t like to see their lives disrupted. And these average Aboriginals, they’re not political. They don’t have an opinion on pipelines or blockades.They want to get on with their lives just like regular Canadians.”
Several hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation in B.C. oppose the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline set to be built through the land they claim as their traditional territory. But the elected band councils for that and 20 other First Nations communities along the route support the project.
The result has been tension over which group speaks for the interests of the community.
Those tensions escalated after RCMP enforced a court injunction last month that let them begin removing activists from a blockade set up on the pipeline route.
The arrests sparked nationwide protests and blockades that have intermittently shut down border crossings, railroad lines and service, barred access to government buildings, and prompted provincial leaders to warn about looming shortages of essentials like propane.
Via Rail and CN Rail shut down the majority of their operations two weeks ago because of a blockade on the railroad near Belleville, Ont.
And while the RCMP in B.C. have said they are open to walking back their presence on the traditional territories in B.C., there has been no visible sign that the gesture will lead to any walking back of the blockades in place along rail lines.
Ross, who served for six years as the chief councillor of the Haisla Nation in B.C., was an early advocate in his community about the potential benefits in select kinds of resource development: in the case of the Haisla Nation, this is the $40-billion Kitimat LNG plant set to be operated by Chevron.
The Haisla Nation effectively act as landlords for the plant, an agreement that the community says brings in roughly $4 million each year in rent and taxes, along with the potential for other contracts and deals.
The community is also in the process of looking at similar potential agreements with several other LNG companies.
Ross said the “political rhetoric” from those who claim to support some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the natural gas pipeline ignores the “tremendous amount of work” done over the last 15 years among B.C. First Nations like his to get companies to consult and accommodate them on projects.
“You’re trying to de-stabilize these communities and you’re trying to de-legitimize the work that collected band leaders and hereditary leaders have done over the last 15 years, not only to provide jobs or employment as a way out of poverty, but also to breathe life into the word reconciliation.”
What those behind the blockades are actually doing, Ross said, is hurting chances of a more positive future.
“I’m pretty sure Aboriginals across B.C. do not want to see those blockades, they don’t want to see it escalate to the point where Aboriginals are actually getting accosted on the streets,” he said. “I mean, this is setting back reconciliation 20 years.”