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Trudeau Backs Rights Of Anti-Coastal GasLink Pipeline Protesters But Says Laws Must Be ‘Respected’

The PM is facing NDP calls to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a joint press conference with President of Senegal Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar on Feb. 12, 2020.
Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a joint press conference with President of Senegal Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar on Feb. 12, 2020.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government respects the democratic rights of protesters who have blocked railway traffic across Canada, but expects the rule of law to be “respected.”

At a press conference in Dakar, Senegal Wednesday, the prime minister was asked what message he would send to activists who have, in recent days, blocked railway lines, bridges, and the entrances to the B.C. legislature. The protests and blockades are in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose the construction of a Coastal GasLink pipeline that crosses their traditional territory in northwestern B.C.

“We recognize the important democratic right — and we will always defend it — of peaceful protest. This is an important part of our democracy in Canada,” Trudeau said. “But we are also a country of the rule of law and we need to make sure those laws are respected. That is why… I am encouraging all parties to dialogue to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Watch: Indigenous activists occupy B.C. legislature

Trudeau is currently visiting African nations to bolster Canada’s campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat. He said the issue is obviously “of concern” to his government, and that he will speak with ministers to look at “what possible next steps there are.”

The blockades are in response to the RCMP enforcing a court injunction last week against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and supporters who have been halting construction of the pipeline. The line is central to a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied-natural-gas export project.

The elected Wet’suwet’en band council is one of 20 councils along the route that have signed benefit agreements with Coastal GasLink. However, the First Nation’s hereditary chiefs traditional leaders who hold historically and culturally significant positions maintain the council, established by the Indian Act, only has authority over reserve lands.

Blockades erected last week have disrupted rail services in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C., and more than 150 freight trains, according to the Canadian National Railway Co.

Garneau: It’s ‘up to the provinces to enforce injunctions’

Trudeau’s remarks echo sentiments expressed Tuesday by Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who said that while the government is “seized” by what he called a “complex issue,” it is up to provinces to enforce injunctions obtained by train companies to end the blockades.

“I can tell you that the government of Canada is seized of it because of the impacts with respect to safety, with respect to the economy, with respect to inconvenience to passengers,” Garneau said.

He said railway companies have obtained injunctions in certain cases, but it’s “ultimately up to the provinces to enforce those injunctions, so it’s a question of who has jurisdiction here.”

Trudeau and other key ministers have kept their distance from the situation on the ground in the Wet’suwet’en territory by saying the matter that is under provincial jurisdiction. The prime minister noted in the House of Commons last week that the RCMP’s actions with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were directed by the provincial government of B.C. Premier John Horgan.

“On this side of the House, we respect Premier Horgan and the work he is doing to advance reconciliation, and I recommend that the members opposite do the same,” Trudeau said in question period when pressed by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to meet with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.

Singh reiterated that call on Twitter Wednesday, asking Trudeau to cut his overseas trip short if he is serious about fostering true “nation-to-nation relationships” with Indigenous groups.

“After centuries of colonialism, the way forward is not easy, but refusing to talk and pretending the federal government has no role is a failure of leadership,” Singh tweeted.

New Brunswick Green Party MP Jenica Atwin also called on the prime minister, who will meet with Caribbean leaders in Barbados next week, to “come back to Canada.”

But a Conservative leadership hopeful is highlighting the blockades as representative of what he calls a “shutdown culture” that has flourished under Trudeau’s leadership.

Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who appears to be trying to carve out a niche as a more right-wing option than presumed leadership front-runner Peter MacKay, released a video online Tuesday showing footage from various protests. In a tweet, he promised to “enforce the law and push back against eco-extremists.”

“Your right to protest does not give you the right to blockade our democratic process and our legislatures. Your right to protest does not allow you to block the ability for Canadians to use bridges, rail lines and ports,” he says in the clip.

HuffPost Canada asked O’Toole’s campaign what he would do differently if he were prime minister and if he would be willing to bring in the Canadian military to end blockades.

“When the country is being shut down particularly in areas of federal responsibility like interprovincial railways its the responsibility of the Prime Minister to support appropriate police action,” O’Toole responded in an emailed statement.

“When a court of law has issued an injunction, it is not a call for further ‘dialogue.’ Illegal blockades are not peaceful protests.”

With files from The Canadian Press, Samantha Beattie

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