Federal Emergency Group Remain Tight-Lipped on Ending Anti-Pipeline Blockades

February 17, 2020 Updated: February 17, 2020
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An emergency meeting of cabinet ministers to discuss anti−pipeline blockades that have shut down swaths of the country’s train system broke up at mid−day in Ottawa on Feb. 17, with participants tight−lipped about what they’d decided.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had previously said the “Incident Response Group” would talk about how to handle the protests against a planned natural−gas pipeline that crosses Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are opposed to the project.

The group was described upon its inception in 2018 as a “dedicated, emergency committee that will convene in the event of a national crisis or during incidents elsewhere that have major implications for Canada.”

Trudeau cancelled a planned two−day trip to Barbados, where he was to meet with Caribbean leaders to campaign for a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

He faced criticism last week over his presence in Africa and Europe as the protests were beginning, so Foreign Affairs Minister Francois−Philippe Champagne will represent Canada in Trudeau’s place.

As the Mohawk−led blockade on Tyendinaga territory continued near Belleville, Ont., on Feb. 17, Wet’suwet’en supporters across the country geared up for solidarity events. In Toronto, a march to the legislature has been planned for the afternoon, while in Montreal, some were preparing to gather at McGill University. A rally was also planned for Ottawa’s Confederation Park in the afternoon.

Meantime, there’s mounting political pressure for Trudeau to put an end to the blockades.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford spoke with Trudeau late on Feb. 16 and issued a statement urging the federal government to take action.

“Premier Ford asked the prime minister to take immediate action and provide detail on a clear plan to ensure an end to this national issue,” the statement read.

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said last week that Trudeau should tell Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to use his authority under the RCMP Act to end what he called the “illegal blockades.”

But Trudeau shot back, arguing that Canada is not a country “where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters.”

Thus far, the public−facing part of Trudeau’s plan appears to centre on discussions and negotiations, rather than police action.

Carolyn Bennett, the minister for Crown−Indigenous relations, is due to meet with her British Columbia counterpart today, Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser. Bennett is also ready to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, should they give the go−ahead.  

In Ontario, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller met Mohawk Nation representatives for hours on Feb. 15 and said they made “modest progress.” The focus of their talks, he said, was on the pipeline in northern B.C. rather than the blockade on Tyendinaga territory near Belleville, Ont., which was at that point in its 10th day.

Miller pointed to the Oka and Ipperwash crises as reasons why dialogue is preferable to police intervention, in a Feb. 16 appearance on CTV’s political show “Question Period.”

A police officer died during a police raid in 1990 when Mohawks at the Kahnawake reserve south of Montreal blocked the Mercier Bridge into the city, which became the Oka crisis. Five years later at Ipperwash, Ont., one man was killed during a standoff over a land claim by Chippewa protesters outside a provincial park.

“Thirty years ago, police moved in in Kahnesatake and someone died,” Miller said. “And did we learn from that? Did we learn from Ipperwash?”

But while Ontario Provincial Police have so far declined to enforce injunctions and remove protesters from that blockade, RCMP in B.C. have made more than two dozen arrests while enforcing similar injunctions near worksites for the pipeline at the centre of the dispute.