Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau is facing growing calls from industry groups to remove crippling blockades of a planned gas pipeline through northern British Columbia, as talks between the government and protesters failed to resolve the crisis.
On Saturday, Marc Miller, Canada’s indigenous services minister, met for nine hours with the Tyendinaga Mohawk First Nation in Ontario near a blockade that has shut down one of Canada’s busiest rail corridors. He said the two sides “made some modest progress” but refused to say when the blockades might end. The situation was “highly volatile”, he added.
The dispute centres on the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is being built to supply natural gas to a planned $40bn liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat on the BC coast. The company obtained support from the 20 elected councils along the route, with several holding referendums on the matter.
However, hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who assert control over a 22,000-square-kilometre area that includes the pipeline route, oppose the project.
After the BC Supreme Court extended an injunction against a group of Wet’suwet’en protesters blocking a service road the pipeline, officers from Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, moved in and arrested two dozen people in early February. Over the past week the arrests sparked protests by both indigenous and environmental groups across Canada.
On Friday, outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said “radical activists” were “holding our country’s economy hostage” while Mr Trudeau was out of the country on a “vanity project” to secure a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“We can’t let [protesters] run roughshod over the rule of law,” said Mr Scheer.
While protests have expanded over the past week, Mr Trudeau has been in Kuwait, Senegal and Germany to meet world leaders to lobby for a security council spot.
Speaking on Friday in Munich, Mr Trudeau said Canada had “failed our Indigenous peoples over generations, over centuries, and there is no quick fix to it.”
But he added: “We are a country that recognises the right to protest but we are a country of the rule of law and we will make sure everything is done to resolve this through dialogue and constructive outcomes.”
In Ontario the Mohawks of Tyendinaga set up a blockade roughly 220km east of Toronto that has snarled passenger and commercial rail traffic along the busy rail corridor. CN Rail, which owns and operates the line, has cancelled more than 400 trains during the past week.
CN Rail obtained orders from the courts that all blockades must end, and while blockades in Manitoba have been taken down, the company said in a statement the court orders in Ontario “have yet to be enforced and continue to be ignored.”
The rail shutdown is already having a “very big impact” on steel, auto parts and food products manufacturers, said Dennis Darby, president & CEO of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. The lobby group’s members normally load about 4,500 rail cars a day and with that capacity suddenly gone, supply chains are being strained.
“The longer this goes on, our worry is that people are going to have to start cutting shifts,” he said. “We’re days away from that happening.”
“There are not many alternatives [to rail] for companies and so it’s really important that the government gets this resolved.”
The rail shutdown has also led to shortages of propane in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces.
Meanwhile Via Rail, Canada’s national rail carrier, shut down nearly its entire national network on Thursday, affecting the travel plans of more than 24,000 passengers and leaving thousands stranded.
Protesters have also disrupted commuter rail traffic in Montreal, Quebec and Metro Vancouver in BC.
Provincial leaders are also pressuring Mr Trudeau to act. “It’s up to Justin Trudeau to solve the problem,” Quebec Premier François Legault said on Thursday. “We are suffering a lot.”
Since first being elected in 2015 Mr Trudeau has tried to walk a fine line between fighting climate change and encouraging resource development in Canada’s energy sector, while at the same time seeking reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Mr Trudeau’s Liberal government is in a precarious position, having failed to win another majority in last year’s national elections.