Politics·Analysis

Reconciliation, the rail blockades and the problem with asking for 'patience'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is asking Canadians to be "patient" with its government as it works to end Indigenous rail blockades that are threatening the economy. But patience is a limited commodity - and it needs some sense of progress in order to work.

Canadians might be more willing to wait - if they knew what they were waiting for

Supporters stand with protesters during a rail blockade in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Ont., on Monday. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Appearing to deviate from his prepared remarks Tuesday morning on the Indigenous protests that have snarled Canada's major railways over the last week, Justin Trudeau offered a few thoughts on the general state of public discourse.

"In this country, we are facing many important and deep debates," he told the House of Commons. "More and more, we see those debates carried with increasing intensity on the margins of our democratic conversations."

A few moments later, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer stood and declared that Trudeau's full statement "was the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history."

"Will our country be one of the rule of the law or will our country be one of the rule of the mob?" Scheer asked.

Trudeau appears to have decided that talking tough isn't likely to bring about a swift resolution. He's never really been much for fire or brimstone anyway.

At the very least, Trudeau now knows exactly what will be said of him if the current impasse persists. Regardless, he might still need to do more to fill the space between those margins.

No ultimatums, no swagger

Scheer may have been hoping Trudeau would deliver something like his father's "just watch me" moment — a quip celebrated for its cinematic swagger even as it rationalized a massive breach of civil liberties (and even if invoking the War Measures Act didn't do much for extinguishing the sovereignist movement in Quebec).

From Justin Trudeau, there were no denunciations, threats or ultimatums. Instead, the prime minister called for things like patience, listening, partnership, collaboration and trust.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is calling on all sides in the rail blockade to sit down and talk, but says that "finding a solution will not be simple" during a statement in the House of Commons Tuesday. 9:56

"This is our opportunity now to bring these perspectives together," Trudeau said, referring to his government's outreach to the Mohawk Nation and the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. "Because what is the alternative? Do we want to become a country of irreconcilable differences where people talk but refuse to listen, where politicians are ordering police to arrest people, a country where people think they can tamper with rail lines and endanger lives? This is simply unacceptable."

Of Indigenous leaders and peoples, he said, "We are not asking that they stop standing up for their communities, rights and for what they believe. We only ask that they be willing to work with the federal government as partners in finding solutions."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer calls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's speech 'weakest response to a crisis' in Canadian history while making a statement in the House of Commons Tuesday. 6:16

It's easier to talk tough from the opposition benches, particularly after you've surrendered any hope of being prime minister. But Scheer clearly spoke for some segment of the Canadian public.

At some point, protesters might decide that they risk alienating too many members of the public. Ultimately, the long view might convince everyone to step back.

Trudeau's plea for patience could apply both to those who would like the trains to start running again and to those who would like reconciliation to be realized. "Patience may be in short supply," he said, "and that makes it more valuable than ever."

But patience is harder to maintain when it's not clear how much longer one has to wait.

What Trudeau didn't offer was a specific plan — or even a sense, however vague, of how things might play out. Maybe he can't say. Maybe private negotiations require a certain amount of discretion.

Rage rushes in

But in the absence of details, denunciation and rage can rush in to fill the gap.

Trudeau is caught now between those who claim reconciliation is dead and those who, without quite saying so, want him to order the RCMP to arrest anyone and everyone who blocks a railroad track. But he has struggled to occupy and hold space on reconciliation throughout the last four and a half years.

Having embraced the idea of reconciliation, he has had a hard time claiming or showing progress. He would insist that real progress has been made — Trudeau said on Tuesday that his government has "invested more than any other government to right historic wrongs." But there have been significant conflicts and a few setbacks. 

Conflicts and setbacks likely were inevitable — but if it was widely believed that reconciliation has real momentum, that substantial progress is being made, Trudeau might have a stronger hand to play now and protesters might have a harder time holding their line. Instead, it has been easy to proclaim that reconciliation is a lost cause.

"The prime minister promised to be different," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday morning, "but he broke those promises and he did not show himself to be very different."

Tuesday's speech might have been a good opportunity for Trudeau to push back more forcefully — to take up more of the space between the extremes and his critics.

If nothing else, Tuesday morning's speeches in the House may have served to crystallize the stakes of this current dispute for the prime minister, and perhaps the future course of reconciliation.

As long as this dispute continues, Trudeau risks looking weak or incapable, or simply something less than he promised to be. And if enough people come to that conclusion, it might end up being someone else's turn to confront the realities of reconciliation.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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.