Politics

Premiers, Liberal MPs push for a swift end to protests crippling rail network

As calls for action from Canada's premiers, the business community and members of his own caucus intensify, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today his government is working hard to secure a peaceful end to Indigenous protests that have crippled the railways and thrown hundreds of people out of work.

Trudeau calls pitch to replace RCMP with Indigenous police on Wet'suwet'en territory 'a good idea'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives at a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill Wednesday morning. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

As calls for action from Canada's premiers, the business community and members of his own caucus intensify, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today his government is working hard to secure a peaceful end to Indigenous protests that have crippled the railways and led to hundreds of layoffs.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe convened a phone meeting of the Council of Federation Wednesday to discuss how the provinces can help end the Indigenous blockades. He said provincial premiers need to act at a time when there is a "lack of federal leadership" beyond a promise to have more "dialogue" with the protesters.

After the call, a spokesperson for Moe said all the premiers want to speak to the prime minister Thursday via teleconference to "discuss paths to a peaceful resolution and an end to the illegal blockades."

Quebec Premier François Legault said Ottawa needs to set a deadline to end the protests — and that the federal government should not rule out police action to dismantle the barricades keeping the trains from moving.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett sent a letter to the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs Wednesday to again seek an in-person meeting with those opposed to the continued construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through northern B.C.

Bennett flew to Victoria earlier this week to meet with the chiefs, but the meeting never took place. Her new request for talks is part of the government's push to end the protests through peaceful negotiations rather than police intervention.

Bennett and her B.C. counterpart, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Scott Fraser, said in the letter they want a "safe resolution of the current impasse."

"We understand that you have urgent issues to resolve and require dedicated attention from both levels of government to work with you in charting a peaceful path forward," Bennett and Fraser said.

B.C. chiefs to meet with Mohawks

At least four hereditary chiefs are expected to travel to Ontario to meet with the Tyendinaga Mohawks who have erected a blockade near Belleville, Ont., a demonstration that has been the source of the large-scale rail shutdowns. A spokesperson for the chiefs said the visit was to express their thanks to the Mohawks for standing in solidarity with them.

A protester walks on the closed train tracks on the ninth day of the blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont. on Friday. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

Liberal caucus members were seized with the issue during their weekly meeting this morning. Sources told CBC News that many MPs expressed "anxiety" about how the prime minister and his cabinet would bring an end to the protests, while a number of MPs said the government needs to bring these demonstrations to a swift end.

Only a few Liberal MPs suggested the police should be called in to end the blockades. The Mohawk protest has shut down CN Rail in Eastern Canada and much of Via Rail's services nationwide by blocking a key artery in southern Ontario.

Speaking to reporters before the caucus meeting on Parliament Hill, Trudeau said he's concerned about the disruptions to the economy.

"We're working extremely hard to resolve this situation," he said. "We know that people are facing shortages, are facing disruptions, they're facing layoffs. That's unacceptable."

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said in question period Wednesday that the Liberal government's inaction has emboldened protesters and privileged "anti-free market radical activists" over Canadian workers.

Scheer renewed his call for Ottawa to step in to end the protests.

Trudeau said police action to dismantle the rail blockades would be the wrong approach.

"We need to resolve it not just for today and tomorrow, but for the weeks and months to come. The approach the leader of the opposition is proposing would not ensure jobs and stability for Canadians in the future. We're focused on resolving it peacefully," Trudeau said in response.

Watch: Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau debate removing blockades

During question period in the House of Commons Wednesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to call in the police to forcefully remove GasLink protesters blocking the railways. 1:32

Responding to a question from the Bloc Québécois, Trudeau said the government has considered replacing the RCMP with an Indigenous-led law enforcement body on the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en.

"That's a good idea and it's one among many that we're discussing and considering with B.C.," Trudeau said in French.

The Mohawk activists near Belleville, Ont. have said they won't end their rail blockade until the RCMP leaves territory claimed by the Wet'suwet'en in northern B.C. Last week, RCMP arrested protesters there who had been blocking an access road to a natural gas pipeline construction site.

Throughout his exchange with opposition members in the Commons today, the prime minister's comments were swamped by chants of "You've done nothing" from the Opposition benches.

"The raising of the rhetoric and the temperature by membership of the Official Opposition is not serving to help any of the Canadians facing layoffs or daily disruptions in their lives," Trudeau said.

Layoffs for rail workers

CN Rail said Tuesday it has issued 450 temporary pink slips to employees so far, as the railway's eastern Canadian operations remain shuttered. Hundreds more could follow if the protests continue.

A spokesperson for Unifor, the union that represents employees at Via Rail, said 875 workers received layoff notices Wednesday because much of the passenger rail network is shut down.

"This general interruption is an unprecedented situation in our history. In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that Via Rail, a public intercity passenger rail service, has to interrupt most of its services across the country," said Cynthia Garneau, president and CEO of Via.

"At this point, we believe we have made the fairest and most reasonable decision with the proposed temporary suspension plan," Garneau said of the layoffs.

Beyond the job losses, the chemicals industry has warned of impending shortages of propane for home heating, chlorine for municipal water and de-icing fluid for airports.

Speaking to reporters at the National Assembly today, Legault said Ottawa needs to do more than its plan for more "dialogue."

"Mr. Trudeau has to put a deadline in the next few days — not the in the next few weeks — because right now we have jobs at [risk]," Legault said.

"It's illegal, this blockade. The Canadian economy is suffering and we have to listen to Canadians. Yes, we have to respect Indigenous people, listen to them, but we also need to listen to Canadians, to Quebecers."

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair rejected that request Wednesday, saying he is "reluctant to put a timeline to something. I find that's not a very effective means of negotiation."

Francois Legault told reporters in Quebec City that the deadline should be the same across the country 2:04

The Quebec premier said Ottawa should not rule out deploying police to move the protesters off the tracks, but added such a move should be done "in co-ordination with every province."

Ottawa has been reluctant to use police to enforce a court injunction because it fears a repeat of the Ipperwash standoff or the Oka crisis.

Another blockade was erected by a group called "Cuzzins for Wet'suwet'en" on Wednesday morning, blocking trains on a CN Rail line near Edmonton. The 20 demonstrators said they were also staging the protest "in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en."

The blockade was dismantled by counter-protesters by midday who said they were there to clean up the "trash" the Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters had placed along the tracks to stop the CN trains.

Conservative leadership contender Peter MacKay celebrated the work of the counter-protesters who disrupted the blockade in a tweet that was later deleted.

In this tweet sent from Peter MacKay's account, the Conservative leadership candidate appears to applaud the efforts of counter-demonstrators to dismantle a blockade set up on a rail line near Edmonton. (Peter MacKay/Twitter)

MacKay subsequently sent a new tweet quoting one of the counter-protestors, who said he was not engaging in violence but was "trying to remove the garbage."

Conservatives plan opposition day motion

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen also tabled a number of motions in the Commons Tuesday — including a motion of non-confidence which, if adopted, could bring down the government and trigger an election.

While the likelihood of such a motion passing at this point is slim, Bergen said it's intended to send a signal to the Liberal government that the Official Opposition is "extremely frustrated" by the rail "crisis."

"We see the response of the Liberals as being very weak. How can this happen in Canada? We are a country of law and order and rules. People are frustrated and they want to know what the government is going to do," she said.

Watch: Conservative House Leader Candace Bergen discusses opposition motions

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen says her party lacks confidence in the Liberal government's handling of the rail blockade. Conservatives tabled a number of motions in the Commons Tuesday — including a motion of non-confidence which, if adopted, could bring down the government and trigger an election. 1:16

During an emergency debate in the Commons late Tuesday, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said there is a clear "path forward" to defuse the ongoing tensions caused by protests that have hamstrung the country's transportation network — despite some Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs refusing to meet with federal officials until after the RCMP leave their territory.

"I know that the recent events in B.C. and in various places across the country are deeply concerning to all Canadians. It is a very difficult situation for everyone, for those people who are non-Indigenous, but especially if they are Indigenous," Miller said.

"All of Canada is hurting and we are all hoping and working for a peaceful resolution."

Watch: Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller shares personal story during emergency debate

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller shared a personal story of joining the Canadian Armed Forces as a teenager, just as the Oka crisis began to bubble up. 3:29

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.

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