The federal and British Columbia governments are working to arrange meetings with Indigenous leaders in an effort to halt blockades of rail lines that have choked Canada’s economy.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller wrote a letter to three individuals in Ontario regarding a protest on Tyendinaga Mohawk traditional territory that has halted freight and passenger traffic between Toronto and Montreal. He offered to meet at a location of their choice on Saturday.
“My request, that I ask you kindly to consider, is to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable. As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of the utmost importance to me,” Miller said in the email, a copy of which he posted publicly Thursday morning.
“I hope you will agree to this request and that we can meet in the spirit of peace and co-operation that should guide our relationship.”
Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Donald Maracle, one of the three recipients of the letter, said he expects the meeting will take place but he can’t comment on Miller’s request to end the blockade because it wasn’t initiated by council.
“We’re happy that he’s agreed to come,” Maracle said. “We need to allow the discussion to take place.”
Horgan also publicly released a letter Thursday addressed to Simogyet Spookw, who also goes by Norman Stephens, a chief of the Gitxsan Nation. In the letter, the premier thanked the chief for reaching out to his office to propose a meeting with hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nation over a rail blockade in New Hazelton, B.C.
“I confirm our government’s willingness to participate in such a meeting,” Horgan said. “I understand that on receipt of this letter and a similar commitment from Canada, the blockade of the CN line will be removed to allow for a period of calm and peaceful dialogue.”
Protest organizers across Canada have said they’re acting in solidarity with those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation near Houston, B.C.
Blockades were erected after the RCMP enforced a court injunction last week against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who had been stopping construction of the pipeline, a key part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project.
The office of Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett said the federal government will be participating in “a joint meeting with the Wet’suwet’en and the Gitxsan leadership.” Bennett’s office said they will be working with her counterpart in British Columbia to arrange the meeting as soon as possible.
They also noted this meeting will be in addition to the work being done by federal ministers and their provincial counterparts who are working with Miller’s office to try to communicate to Kanenhariyo, Chief Maracle and regional Chief Archibald regarding the current blockade in Tyendinaga, Ont., where protesters have stopped rail traffic between Montreal and Toronto since last Thursday.
One protester, Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, interviewed by Global News at the blockade in Tyendinaga Township, Ont. said that Miller’s request made it seem like protesters were the ones to blame for the current circumstances.
“We’re not stopping until you stop. When you have your colonial politicians like Marc Miller turning the situation around like we’re the ones who are being violent, you’re gaslighting up, like you are lying, you are manipulating,” Wabano-Iahtail, an Indigenous activist from Attawapiskat First Nation Reserve, said.
Wabano-Iahtail added that at this point, protests that have popped up around the country are no longer just about the Coastal GasLink pipeline but about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada for hundreds of years.
“My people did not invade Europe. We’re home and we’re not going anywhere, and no longer will we be oppressed, no longer will we be subjugated, no longer will be we dehumanized, no longer will you terrorize us for free. That’s not happening anymore because it’s our children that we’re burying.”
B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said he will represent the provincial government at the meeting with Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en chiefs.
“The discussion with Chief Stephens is that, with an agreement to this meeting, there will be a stand down on the blockade,” he said. “That’s heartening.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also responded to the letter and said Bennett will attend the meeting in B.C. on behalf of the federal government, the prime minister’s office said.
Stephens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The meeting arrangements come after the Assembly of First Nations and Opposition politicians urged the Liberal government to take swifter and firmer action to defuse tensions over the pipeline.
Via Rail has cancelled service on its Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes until at least the end of the day on Friday because of the Mohawk blockade near Belleville, Ont.
Via has also said the blockade near New Hazelton means normal rail service is being interrupted between Prince Rupert and Prince George.
Ian Boxall, vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said the rail blockades are affecting almost every commodity.
Boxall said dozens of ships in Vancouver are waiting to be loaded, while eight await shipments in Prince Rupert.
In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister said the Justice Department will seek an injunction to end a rail blockade west of Winnipeg and have it enforced within a few days.
Protesters in Vancouver occupied the office of B.C. Attorney General David Eby on Thursday to demand the immediate removal of RCMP and Coastal GasLink from Wet’suwet’en territory.
“Today’s crisis … is yet another flashpoint that reveals the inherent injustice embedded in the uneven and unequal relationship between the Canadian government and Indigenous Nations,” said protester Natalie Knight in a statement.
Days after hundreds of people blocked the entrances to the B.C. legislature and chanted “shame” at politicians trying to get inside, the head of the B.C. civil service sent an email to employees cautioning that another protest may occur on Friday.
Don Wright wrote that staff may have heard protesters are planning to “shut down” as many ministries as possible. He said the civil service has developed a flexible plan to maintain as much service to the public as possible.
“Please ensure that your safety and that of your colleagues is your first priority,” he said. “We will not ask public servants to put themselves into any situation where they do not feel safe.”
Meanwhile, two hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have launched a constitutional challenge of fossil-fuel projects.
The challenge calls on the Federal Court to declare that Canada is constitutionally obliged to meet international climate-change targets, which the chiefs contend would cancel approvals for the Coastal GasLink line.
Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre route, but the hereditary chiefs in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation say they have title to a vast section of the land and never relinquished that by signing a treaty.
Without their consent, the project cannot be built, they say, and they’ve repeatedly gone to court to stop it — without success.
— With files from David Reevely in Ottawa and Dirk Meissner in Victoria and Global News
© 2020 The Canadian Press