Politics

Trudeau asks for patience as rail blockades continue, bars Scheer from leaders' meeting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the House of Commons Tuesday asking Canadians to be patient with his government as Ottawa seeks a negotiated end to Indigenous protests that have crippled the country's transportation network.

Trudeau met with opposition leaders to discuss government response to protests — but didn't invite Scheer

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Trudeau asked for patience as his government seeks a negotiated end to Indigenous-led rail blockades. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Addressing the House of Commons Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Canadians to be patient with his government as it seeks a negotiated end to Indigenous protests that have crippled the country's transportation network.

Trudeau said his government is committed to "dialogue" over the use of force with the Indigenous protesters who have shut down CN Rail in Eastern Canada and much of Via Rail's services nationwide by blocking a key artery in southern Ontario. CN announced it is "temporarily" laying off about 450 workers at its Eastern Canadian operations.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Trudeau's call for more talks with the protesters has emboldened "radical activists" who are intent on holding the Canadian economy hostage.

In a forceful response to Trudeau, Scheer said the prime minister's reluctance to use the police to stop the illegal blockades was akin to appeasement, a stance that privileges activists over "hard-working Canadians" and Indigenous people who support development.

Trudeau held a meeting with opposition leaders later Tuesday but didn't extend an invitation to Scheer. Speaking to reporters after the talks, Trudeau said Scheer's speech signalled he isn't willing to cooperate.

"Mr. Scheer disqualified himself from constructive discussions with his unacceptable speech earlier today," Trudeau said.

The blockade has been in place for 12 days and CN has been forced to shutter its network east of Toronto since Friday — a devastating development for businesspeople, commuters and farmers who rely on the railway for their livelihoods.

The protesters from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory say they are acting in solidarity with some of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in B.C. who oppose the Coastal GasLink pipeline project running through their traditional territory.

"On all sides, people are upset and frustrated. I get it," Trudeau said. "It's understandable because this is about things that matter — rights and livelihoods, the rule of law and our democracy."

WATCH: Call for calm, dialogue to end rail blockades:

Even after fiery debate in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his ministers and some Indigenous leaders are calling for calm and dialogue as the way to end the ongoing rail blockades. 4:17

While the prime minister did not lay out a clear path forward in his speech, Trudeau seemed to be ruling out police intervention at this point in favour of more conversations with the protesters. He said the suggestion from the Conservative Opposition that Ottawa forcibly remove the protesters from camps along the CN tracks in Belleville, Ont. is "not helpful."

"Finding a solution will not be simple. It will take determination, hard work and co-operation," Trudeau said. "We are creating a space for peaceful honest dialogue with willing partners ... We need Canadians to show both resolve and collaboration. Everyone has a stake in getting this right."

Tyendinaga Mohawk activists have said they won't end their demonstration until the RCMP leaves the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en, where there have been numerous arrests of demonstrators who have been blocking an access road to the natural gas pipeline construction site.

When asked if the federal government would order the RCMP to leave the territory, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said late Tuesday that the government is "looking at a suite of options."

"When our objective is a peaceful resolution to this, there's a number of options that are on the table," Miller told CBC's Power & Politics.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller joined Power & Politics Tuesday to discuss the ongoing rail blockades crippling Canada's rail network. 8:35

He said the government would not be negotiating an end to the protests in public.

"This is a very tense situation and people's lives are at risk," Miller said.

An hours-long meeting between Miller and the Mohawk on Saturday failed to end the blockade. Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett flew to B.C. Monday to meet with Wet'suwet'en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, but that meeting never actually took place.

Trudeau said that, for too long, the federal government has ignored Indigenous demands to solve lingering land and treaty disputes. He chastised Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (without mentioning him by name) and other politicians he accused of pushing Ottawa to "act with haste and boil this down to slogans and ignore the complexities."

'Weakest response to a national crisis'

Scheer called Trudeau's address "the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history."

He said Trudeau's speech offered Canadians "a word salad" with no meaningful plan to restore rail service and end the illegal blockades that are hampering the country's economy.

"The prime minister's statement was a complete abdication of responsibility and leadership," Scheer said. "The prime minister has emboldened and encouraged this kind of behaviour."

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

Scheer said Trudeau is standing with activists who are determined to shut down the country's energy industry.

"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.

On Friday, Scheer said the prime minister should direct the RCMP to remove the protesters. The Ontario Provincial Police are on hand in Tyendinaga but they have not yet enforced a court injunction that gives them the power to dismantle the protest camps and arrest those behind the blockade.

Trudeau had a meeting with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May, the Green Party's parliamentary leader, in his office Tuesday to discuss the government's response to the ongoing blockades.

Scheer said Trudeau was using the meeting to distract from a "disastrous speech" that was void of any concrete plan to dismantle the blockades. He said the other opposition leaders were used as pawns by the Prime Minister's Office.

Singh said the meeting with the prime minister was "constructive" and Scheer should be denounced for the speech he delivered in the Commons. "I think what he said was reprehensible. What he said was divisive. It was purposely designed to pit some groups against another," Singh said.

During a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday morning, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said all the players — federal and provincial politicians, hereditary Wet'suwet'en chiefs and elected band officials — need to come to the table.

"It's on everybody. It's not on any one individual," he said. "I'm just calling on all the parties to come together, get this dialogue started in a constructive way."

Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon called on protesters to end the rail blockades as a "show of good faith."

"Bringing down the blockades doesn't mean that you surrender. It doesn't mean we're going to lay down and let them kick us around. No, it would show compassion," he said.

"I'm simply pleading with the protesters ... Have you made your point yet? Has the government and industry understood? I think they did."

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations spoke with reporters on Tuesday 1:05

CN issued a statement Tuesday, saying that the layoffs and a "progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations" amount to a "responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protestors.

"This situation is regrettable for its impact on the economy and on our railroaders as these protests are unrelated to CN's activities, and beyond our control. Our shutdown is progressive and methodical to ensure that we are well set up for recovery, which will come when the illegal blockades end completely."

Business groups were calling on the federal government Tuesday to take steps to immediately restore full rail service.

Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said the situation is "beyond serious."

The group estimates that goods worth about $425 million are being stranded every day the blockade continues — and it will take three to four days of work to recover from a single day of disruption.

'The time to act is now, says Curtis Frank, as idle trains cause a huge disruption in the domestic and global supply chain.   1:16

Bob Masterson, president and CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said a prolonged shutdown inevitably would lead to shortages of his industry's products, such as jet fuel for planes, propane for home heating and chlorine for drinking water.

Protesters with the Mohawks of Tyendinaga have been stationed beside the tracks near Belleville, Ont., since Feb. 6 to protest the RCMP's raids in Wet'suwet'en territory in northern B.C.

Via Rail announced Tuesday that all trains running between Toronto and Windsor, Toronto and Sarnia and on the Toronto-Niagara route will resume operating as of Thursday morning. Partial service is also set to resume between Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa beginning Thursday, the operator said.

Almost all other Via Rail services remain cancelled, with the exception of Sudbury-White River and Churchill-The Pas, until further notice.

Via says the partial resumption of service between Ottawa and Quebec City follows a notification received from Canadian National Railway.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May make statements on the rail blockades in the House of Commons. 21:48

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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