Was Trudeau dragging his heels on the blockades, or giving himself room to manoeuvre?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a lot of grief in recent days from people who think he's been soft on the rail blockades. But an aggressive early response probably wouldn't have gotten him anywhere either.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a news conference with members of his cabinet to discuss the rail blockades. From left to right, Bill Blair, minister of public safety; Chrystia Freeland, deputy prime minister; Trudeau; Marc Miller, Indigenous services minister; Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations; and Marc Garneau, transport minister. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Tuesday's prime minister was full of patience. Friday's prime minister was nearly done waiting.

"Canadians have been patient. Our government has been patient," Justin Trudeau said Friday afternoon. "But it has been two weeks and the barricades need to come down now."

Trudeau has to hope now that he's done enough over the past few days — and perhaps over the last several years — to permit his demand for movement now to push the crisis to a peaceful resolution.

On Tuesday, Trudeau emphasized a desire for dialogue, collaboration and partnership. On Friday, he was at pains to detail the government's efforts to settle the matter. But he conceded that those efforts have not been reciprocated.

"Every attempt at dialogue has been made. But discussion has not been productive," he said. "We cannot have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's complete press conference on rail blockades

2 years ago
Duration 33:07
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government's focus will remain on finding a 'peaceful and lasting resolution' to rail disruptions.

A summary of the latest meeting of the government's incident response group, released shortly before Trudeau spoke, underlined that point.

"Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett and Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller ... noted that the repeated offers to meet with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs to address immediate and long-term issues have not yet been accepted," the government release read.

In their own statement on Friday afternoon, the hereditary chiefs said they would only engage in discussions once the RCMP had withdrawn from their territory and activities related to the Coastal GasLink pipeline had ceased.

Wet'suwet'en chief says no blockade talks until demands met

2 years ago
Duration 1:35
Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chief Woos says there will be no talks on ending rail blockades until the RCMP leaves their territory and all work on a natural gas pipeline ceases.

Premier John Horgan has dismissed demands to kill the pipeline. But the RCMP in British Columbia — who are operating under provincial jurisdiction — told the chiefs on Wednesday that officers were willing to step back.

(Late Friday night, a significant opening seemed to emerge out of Victoria when B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office told Coastal GasLink to conduct further consultations with Indigenous communities along the disputed portion of the pipeline's path. The company now has 30 days to start those consultations; in the meantime, work on that section is to be halted.)

Trudeau's critics might argue that he should have gotten to this point sooner, or that he must wear the failure of his push for dialogue.

A quest for credibility

But Trudeau's statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday likely put him in a better position to say what he said on Friday. Showing a willingness to talk should lend someone more credibility if or when they declare an impasse.

With the economic consequences of the rail blockade piling up and in the absence of constructive dialogue, Trudeau apparently felt able to call time on Friday and say that the next move would belong to Indigenous leaders.

"We have gone through exhausting every possibility for dialogue, for engagement, for finding peaceful solutions to de-escalate this every step of the way," Trudeau said. "We remain open to that, but we are waiting for Indigenous leadership to show that it also understands the onus is on them." (He used the word "onus" four times during Friday's press conference.)

Maybe Trudeau can make that case. But the responsibility for managing national events always will rest ultimately with the prime minister.

This was a more forceful side of Trudeau — he went so far as to distinguish between protests that are grounded in historic wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples and those that have attempted to use or engage with those protests to raise entirely different concerns.

RCMP has increased activity on Wet'suwet'en land, say First Nation leaders

2 years ago
Duration 22:14
A hereditary chief said the RCMP's actions amounted to an "illegal occupation in Wet'suwet'en territory."

But he also stopped short of making threats or announcing specific deadlines (beyond "now"). He repeated, again, that the government would not order police forces to take action — "no order of government orders enforcement action or orders operational actions by police forces."

Asked about calling in the military, he declared, "We don't use the army on Canadian civilians" — an implicit, though perhaps unconscious, repudiation of his father's swaggering "just watch me" moment.

Trudeau is as exposed politically right now as any prime minister would be at such a moment. But this week has been revealing in other ways.

This week showed that the Conservative Party is comfortable proposing that politicians direct police operations — something that Ontario has moved to prohibit in the wake of Ipperwash. And it showed Peter MacKay is still struggling to run a Twitter account.

Scheer: PM showing 'phoney resolve'

2 years ago
Duration 1:18
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of displaying a "phoney resolve" to end the blockade crisis.

But it also may have demonstrated that there's a significant well of public willingness to pursue reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples who originally occupied the land that is now Canada.

In an Ipsos poll, a majority of respondents said they disagreed with the protests (as a general rule, the average Canadian is likely inclined to object to anything that seems disruptive). 

But 75 per cent strongly or somewhat agreed that the federal government must act to raise the quality of life for Indigenous peoples — up 12 points from when the same question was asked in 2013.

The answer to a broad question on an opinion survey shouldn't be confused with support for everything that might be necessary to achieve reconciliation, but both Trudeau and Indigenous protesters should be united by a desire to keep that number as high as possible.

The path to reconciliation will be driven by a desire for justice, but it might be hard to get there without broad public agreement. And there likely is a substantial risk here that this dispute ultimately will undermine that cause.

"Our resolve to pursue the reconciliation agenda with Indigenous peoples is as strong as ever," Trudeau said Friday. "But hurting Canadian families from coast to coast to coast does nothing to advance the cause of reconciliation."

The best hope for a peaceful resolution might be all sides agreeing it's in their best interests to get to one.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.