OTTAWA — The spirit of reconciliation requires a “peaceful resolution” to the blockades that have kept rail traffic from operating across the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday, hours after Ontario Provincial Police began dismantling one in eastern Ontario.

Trudeau convened an early morning meeting of his cabinet’s incident-response group about an hour after the police moved in to take down barriers across the rail line on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in eastern Ontario, arresting several people in the process.

That meeting also came about 12 hours after Teck Resources Ltd. announced it was withdrawing its application to build a massive new oilsands mine in northern Alberta, a decision Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said is entirely a result of Trudeau’s doing “literally nothing” to end the blockades for almost three weeks.

The blockades have gripped the government’s attention as Trudeau has tried to find a path forward that respects Indigenous rights as he has also called for the rule of law to be followed. The one at Tyendinaga was the most economically damaging but others have gone up intermittently on rail lines, roads and bridges from coast to coast.

On Friday Trudeau said the blockades must come down.

Monday he said he was working with rail companies to find alternate routes that have been critical to preventing most serious shortages of resources. Propane shortages have been reported in parts of the country because trains haven’t been running well, which has forced some regions to ration.

Almost three weeks ago, protesters began setting up camps on rail lines across the country in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation against a natural gas project in British Columbia. The Coastal GasLink is a $6.6-billion pipeline to carry natural gas to a new plant being built in Kitimat, B.C., where it will be processed and exported, mostly to markets in Asia.

Hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en oppose the pipeline but the elected chiefs support it and have signed benefit agreements with the company. There remain legal questions about who has authority over the territory the pipeline is to cross, but Scheer says the Wet’suwet’en people want the pipeline.

“Mr. Speaker, these illegal blockades had nothing to do with reconciliation,” Scheer said in the House of Commons. “If people in Ontario want to support reconciliation efforts, then they would listen to the members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who support the Coastal GasLink project. The problem is that there is now a clear playbook for radical activists to follow, and they know that the prime minister will do literally nothing as the economy is brought to its knees.”

Trudeau said Scheer clearly “does not understand anything about reconciliation.”

“People in this House, Conservative party leaders, do not get to pick who speaks for Indigenous Peoples,” he said. “That needs to be done in a thoughtful, engaged way, and we demonstrated through this process that we can both protect reconciliation and protect Canada’s economy as we move forward.”

Question period got so heated, and the heckling so loud, during the opening exchanges between Scheer and Trudeau, Speaker Anthony Rota tried several times to calm the tone. 

“I want to remind the members that intimidating someone who is speaking is not a good way to have a friendly back and forth,” Rota said. “I want to remind everyone not to shout during question period.”

Trudeau waved off Rota’s concern.

“Mr. Speaker, it is OK, they are not intimidating me,” he said.

Outside, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the police actions Monday did not change the need for further negotiations to find a way to satisfy all concerns. In fact, the ministers said, it makes them want to work even harder to find a peaceful solution.

They both said an RCMP community safety office on traditional Wet’suwet’en territory was dismantled on Friday, which was one of the conditions set by the hereditary chiefs for the blockades to end.

“We needed them to communicate that that was to their satisfaction to their supporters from coast to coast to coast,” Bennett said. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen but that safety office is closed and we look forward to hearing more about the details so we can continue the dialogue.”

Trudeau spoke with several premiers by phone Monday about the blockades and said the morning meeting of ministers and top officials included updates on the economic impacts, as well as the police activities and the ongoing outreach between the government and Indigenous communities.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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