Trudeau sends ministers to meet with Indigenous groups behind rail blockades

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has written to the B.C. Indigenous chiefs at the centre of a rail blockade pledging to send a federal representative to hash out an agreement to bring protests there to an end.

'There is no more important relationship to me than the one with Indigenous peoples,' Trudeau says

Protesters add a sign to a trailer at the closed train tracks during a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ont. on Thursday, in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has written to the Indigenous chiefs at the centre of a rail blockade in B.C., pledging to send a federal representative to hash out an agreement to bring the protests to an end.

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has confirmed that Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett will be on hand for a meeting between B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser and Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. No date has been set for the meeting.

Trudeau personally wrote to Gitxsan national hereditary chief Norman Stephens Thursday. In his message, the prime minister said he hoped the meeting would be a "productive and cooperative discussion" that would end the protests that have crippled large sections of the province's railway network.

"As you know, our government has been clear that there is no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous peoples," Trudeau wrote.

"I can confirm our government's participation in a joint meeting ... on how the current impasse over pipeline development arose, to discuss the current situation and to see a process that avoids such situations in the future."

The Gitxsan agreed to dismantle the blockade Thursday in advance of the meeting.

Speaking from Munich Thursday evening, Trudeau said he had a long conversation with B.C. Premier John Horgan while in the air. According to an official read-out of that call, the two leaders agreed that the protesters must "respect the courts and act within the law."

"Obviously, we are a country of the rule of law and we need to make sure those laws are followed," Trudeau told reporters.

The Gitxsan had been blocking rail traffic in and out of the Port of Prince Rupert as a show of solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary leaders who themselves had been blocking road access to a construction site for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a key part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project. The elected Indian Act band councils in the area support the development.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller also offered to meet Saturday with the Mohawks of Tyendinaga who have been blocking service on a rail line in southern Ontario — one of Canada's busiest rail corridors.

In return, Miller, who has spent the last three years learning the Mohawk language, has asked the protesters "to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable."

Tyendinaga Mohawk activists have said they won't end their demonstration until the RCMP leaves the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en. While much of the police action ended Tuesday with multiple arrests, the RCMP still has officers stationed near the Coastal GasLink pipeline construction site in northern B.C.

The Mohawks have set up two camps a few kilometres apart along the tracks. Today, tensions rose between some demonstrators and journalists at the main camp after one individual interrupted a live broadcast and cameras were banned from the site.

Greg Rickford, Ontario's minister of energy and Indigenous affairs, said today that Ottawa isn't doing enough to clear a blockade that is damaging the country's economy. He said Miller should meet with the Mohawks before the weekend.

"I've urged [Miller] to get to that community at the earliest possible time. I would prefer today," he said. "There's no question that the activists want to hear from the federal minister."

Rickford said he spoke to Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald — who was in the community Thursday to help negotiate a resolution — and she told him that the protesters want to meet with a federal representative to discuss Indigenous rights and title.

"We would like to see a more prominent position in the federal government on this because the issues that underpin this are serious national questions," Rickford said.

"This is a federal right of way, a national corridor that carries a lot of people and a lot of materials, supplies ... to and from Ontario and parts beyond ..."

B.C. to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs

Premier Horgan sent his own letter to the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs promising to send Fraser to meet with the protesters on the condition that they end the ongoing rail blockade.

Horgan's letter was drafted in response to a call by Stephens and the West'suwt'en hereditary chiefs for a meeting to put an end to the Coastal GasLink dispute.

"I confirm our government's willingness to participate in such a meeting on the basis you propose," Horgan told Stephens in a letter dated Feb. 12.

"I understand that on receipt of his 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."

Horgan said the meeting would focus also on how best to avoid such actions in the future.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in December that blocking access to a public road was a criminal offence; Justice Marguerite Church granted Coastal GasLink's demand for a injunction to allow police to clear the site.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has offered to meet with the Mohawks of Tyendinaga on Saturday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Mohawk action has halted VIA Rail passenger traffic on the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor and forced CN Rail to end freight service on the route.

Miller sent the email just after midnight Thursday to three individuals: activist Kanenhariyo (whose English name is Seth LeFort), Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief Donald Maracle and Regional Chief Archibald.

"As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of utmost importance to me," Miller wrote in the email.

"I hope you will agree to this request and that we can meet in a spirit of peace and co-operation that should guide our relationship."

The Mohawk demonstrators along the tracks met throughout the morning to discuss how to respond to this offer.

Tyendinaga Mohawk member Jacob Morris said he believes the talks with the minister planned for Saturday will prove fruitful.

"The meeting with Miller will actually go really great. It will probably help benefit us in the near future, with our treaties and everything else," said Morris, sitting the passenger seat of a pickup truck at the second demonstration camp, which was set up along the tracks Wednesday.

"It might actually help us out." 

Morris said that the demonstration, which is now into its eighth day, will continue until the meeting with the minister.

"Well, I don't think there is going to be an end until he shows up and we talk ... man to man and face to face," said Morris.

The Ontario Superior Court issued an injunction last Friday prohibiting continued interference with CN Rail's operations.

Ontario Provincial Police spokesperson Bill Dickson said the aim at the moment is to resolve the issue peacefully.

 "The OPP, including senior command, are working hard to effect a peaceful resolution to this situation," said Dickson. 

Dickson said a court hearing is scheduled for tomorrow on the injunction.

The OPP told demonstrators earlier this week police would be enforcing the injunction.

Minister calls to renew treaty 

CBC News reached Maracle Thursday morning. He said he couldn't comment until a formal statement was released on the issue.

Archibald also said she couldn't comment, but that her office would issue a statement in the event the demonstrators stand down.

Miller said he wanted to renew a 17th century diplomatic treaty between the Iroquois and European settlers.

"I am writing to confirm what I agreed orally a short while ago: that pursuant to the principles of the Silver Chain Covenant, I hereby agree to polish the Chain with you and the Kanien'kehá:ka of Tyendinaga at a location of your choosing this coming Saturday," wrote Miller.

The Silver Chain Covenant — an agreement between Anglo-American settlers and the Mohawk that established hunting boundaries in present-day upstate New York — is often invoked when discussing contemporary affairs between the state and Indigenous peoples. The covenant included a promise to promote peace and trade between the peoples in colonial America.

Miller's email ends with a sign-off in Mohawk.