This is the latest crisis to face the Canadian prime minister at the start of his second term, and Trudeau is taking heat from all sides for not doing more to fix it. After spending days calling for talks and making clear he didn’t want police to dismantle the blockades by force, Trudeau’s tone hardened during a Friday press conference. “Every attempt at dialogue has been made, but discussions have not been productive,” he said. “The barricades must now come down.”
Trudeau said the onus is now on Indigenous leaders to bring down the blockades peacefully, though he did not explicitly say police should intervene if they don’t.
The dispute over construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline has touched a nerve throughout Canada and led to widespread protests that are about much more than the fate of a single pipeline. It is giving voice to those who believe the government is not delivering on its promises to take climate change seriously and transform its relationship with Indigenous peoples, who make up about 5 percent of Canada’s population.
But the makeshift rail blockade in Ontario, set up alongside the tracks with Mohawk warrior flags flying, has dealt a blow to the Canadian economy. One industry group estimates that C$425 million worth of goods is stranded every day the rail stoppage continues, and a coalition of industry associations wrote to Trudeau this week warning that Canada’s “reputation as a dependable partner in international trade” is suffering.
As the days have dragged on, Trudeau’s minority government has faced growing pressure to find a solution, and the prime minister has been accused of weak leadership. Those who support the pipeline are painting this as a test of Ottawa’s commitment to natural resource development: If this project can’t get built, they ask, what project can?
Trudeau’s Liberals were first elected in 2015 after making big promises to achieve reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. But progress has been shaky, and the Coastal GasLink dispute is now challenging the government’s commitment to what it calls a “nation-to-nation relationship” with Indigenous communities.
On Friday, Trudeau conceded that his government’s attempts to negotiate a solution have failed. He acknowledged that the pipeline dispute has “turned into a broader question on the nature and extent of Indigenous rights” and insisted Ottawa’s commitment to reconciliation is “as strong as ever.” But what happens next could have a profound impact on his government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.
What began years ago as a deeply personal battle in a small community has taken on new meaning as it’s attracted national attention. Although Coastal GasLink falls under provincial jurisdiction, to some Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters, the project is more evidence of hypocrisy from a federal government that promised action on climate change but also purchased an oil pipeline and is now considering approving a massive new oil sands mine in Alberta. The protests show that Canadians are “increasingly unwilling to accept … fossil fuel mega-projects,” Greenpeace Canada declared in a news release this week.
But for pipeline supporters, Coastal GasLink is a project nearly a decade in the making, owned by a company — Calgary-based TC Energy — that spent years earning the support of First Nations along the route. They argue that liquefied natural gas exports to Asia will help in the transition to a low-carbon economy and see the project as a bellwether of Canada’s ability to keep its energy industry afloat. Natural resources directly and indirectly accounted for 17 percent of Canada’s nominal GDP and 1.7 million jobs in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Conservatives are painting the protests as a “warm-up act” for a larger fight to shut down Canada’s energy industry and argue they must not be allowed to stymie a natural gas pipeline that could displace coal in China. “If this is held up or delayed to the point where it is canceled, that is going to be an incredibly devastating message to the world that Canada cannot develop our own natural resources,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said recently.
The fight over Coastal GasLink and the ongoing rail blockades in Ontario also point to a deep vein of dissatisfaction among Indigenous people who feel the government, despite its many commitments to reconciliation, is still not listening.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday, Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke Grand Chief Joseph Norton drew a line between the Oka Crisis of 30 years ago, a 78-day standoff between Mohawk protesters, police and the army, and the current protests. “Our people out here, they see that,” he said. “And they see themselves in that. They feel that pain and that anger. They sense it and they know it. Because we’ve seen it happen to ourselves.”
Opposition to pipeline development on the territory of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in northern B.C. dates back more than a decade. It has been led in part by two members of the Indigenous nation, Freda Huson and her former spouse, Warner Naziel, who built a log cabin in 2010 along a remote forestry road, near a bridge they’d turned into a checkpoint to control access to the land. The cabin sat on the right-of-way of several proposed oil and gas pipelines and gradually became a permanent camp that has expanded over the years. They have the support of several hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs, who say they have not given their consent for a pipeline to be built across their traditional territory, a vast swath of land in the province’s northern interior. Other Wet’suwet’en leaders support the pipeline.
The long-simmering dispute has flared up here and there since Coastal GasLink announced in late 2018 it would start construction of the project, a 416-mile pipeline that would move natural gas across B.C. to an LNG export facility on the West Coast. Then, earlier this month, police arrested 28 people for blocking pipeline workers from accessing the site.
Those arrests sparked solidarity protests across the country: During the past two weeks, protesters have temporarily blocked access to the B.C. Legislature, Vancouver ports, an Ontario border crossing, bridges and city streets, in addition to setting up rail blockades in several provinces. The ongoing blockade established by protesters from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory along a rail line in southern Ontario has caused the Canadian National Railway to shut down its operations in eastern Canada and issue 450 temporary layoff notices.
Until recently, Trudeau had tried to stay out of the pipeline dispute, as the Coastal GasLink project is under B.C. jurisdiction. The rail blockades and growing significance of the protests have now made that impossible, but his government has struggled to present a concrete plan. Scheer has called Trudeau’s calls for calm and de-escalation “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.”
On Friday, during a visit to Tyendinaga to thank protesters for their support, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs held a press conference demanding police leave their territory and Coastal GasLink stop work on the pipeline before they will hold further discussions with the government. Mohawk supporters have said they won’t dismantle their blockade until police leave Wet’suwet’en territory, leaving open questions about what will happen next.
Part of what makes this dispute so complicated is that at its heart, it is an intensely personal conflict born of disagreement about who gets to make decisions for the Wet’suwet’en, a nation of only a few thousand people. The nation is divided into six First Nation bands with elected chiefs and councils that were created under Canada’s colonial Indian Act. The five Wet’suwet’en First Nations along the pipeline route have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink, as have all 20 affected First Nations in B.C.
However, the Wet’suwet’en Nation is also organized into five traditional clans with 13 hereditary chief positions, and several of the hereditary chiefs oppose the project.
The two governance systems have never been reconciled, and in the absence of clarity, opposing narratives have emerged. Supporters of the hereditary chiefs insist it is widely accepted that they have ultimate authority over the 22,000 square kilometers of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory — not the band councils. They say elected chiefs signed on to the pipeline project under duress. “I think that … Indigenous peoples across the country have been coerced into a lot of these agreements because of a long history of colonialism and impoverishment and deprivation,” said Anne Spice, a Tlingit supporter of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who was among those arrested earlier this month.
Proponents of the pipeline counter that band councils are democratically elected and have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink to provide much-needed jobs for their people. They point out that several hereditary chiefs who supported the pipeline have had their titles stripped and have been replaced by those who oppose it. They note that Huson and Naziel both ran and lost in last year’s band council election.
There are no easy answers about what reconciliation looks like when some say no and others say yes. “If this [protest] hadn’t happened, we would be celebrating Coastal GasLink … as the most prominent example of reconciliation in Canadian history,” said Ken Coates, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan, pointing to the economic opportunities the project could provide to Indigenous communities that have long suffered from poverty.
Trudeau has said there is no relationship more important to his government than the relationship with Indigenous peoples. That commitment is now being put to the test. “There are historic wrongs to right. There are gaps to be closed,” he said Friday. “But hurting Canadian families from coast to coast to coast does nothing to advance the cause of reconciliation.”