The Current

'Time has come for those barricades to come down,' Bill Blair says of Wet'suwet'en blockades

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair joins The Current's Matt Galloway to discuss when the RCMP will leave Wet'suwet'en territory in B.C., and the prospect of lifting the anti-pipeline blockades that have paralyzed much of Canada’s rail system.

Blair didn't set a deadline for the blockades to come down

A blockade across CN's main rail line in west Edmonton on Wednesday, in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to a natural gas pipeline project in B.C. (Craig Ryan/CBC)
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Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says authorities are still committed to finding a peaceful solution to anti-pipeline rail blockades, but the "time has come for those barricades to come down."

"We've been working to support the police and everyone's effort to resolve this peacefully — and that is our goal," Blair told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"But ultimately, the barricades must come down. We have to get those trains moving again, Canadians rely on it and people's lives are being impacted."

"We are all seized by the urgency of the need to resolve this quickly."

The dispute centres on a proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline in B.C., which 20 First Nations band councils have signed agreements in support of. But it is opposed by some of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en, who assert authority over 22,000 square kilometres of the nation's traditional territory.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says B.C. RCMP have offered to withdraw its mobile station in Wet’suwet’en traditional territory. Blair spoke to reporters ahead of a cabinet meeting Thursday. 4:04

The B.C. Supreme Court issued an injunction in December authorizing the police to clear protest camps blocking access to the public road. After the RCMP cleared the camps earlier this month, rail blockades were set up in solidarity across the country, stopping passenger trains and cargo shipments across eastern Canada for nearly two weeks.

On Thursday, the RCMP offered to leave Wet'suwet'en territory, moving the temporary detachment from near the protest site to the nearby town of Houston — as long as Morice West Forest Service Road remains clear.

Blair said the RCMP offer was not directed by the federal government, but he called the steps a "breakthrough," which "create a set of circumstances that allow for peaceful resolution."

There has been no public response from the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, but they are due to meet with protesters manning blockades in Ontario and Quebec Friday.

Blair didn't set a deadline for the blockades to come down, saying "deadlines aren't necessarily helpful in a negotiation."

But he said he's "strongly of the belief this needs to happen quickly, and I believe those barricades should come down."

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller spoke with reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting on Thursday 0:59

Calls for police to use force

On Thursday, Conservative leadership hopeful and former MP Peter MacKay told CPAC that he would expect police "to clear the tracks, to make sure that people, merchandise and services are moving."

He said the rights of Canadians were "being impeded by individuals who are acting against the law."

"The expectation should be and is that Canadians will have their police intervene." 

Blair disagreed, recalling the Tamil protests in 2009, when 2,000 demonstrators blocked the Gardiner Expressway in anger at what they saw as political silence over bloodshed in Sri Lanka. 

Tamil protesters blocked the Gardiner Expressway on May 10, 2009. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Blair was chief of police in Toronto at the time, a position he held from 2005 to 2015.

"I recall vividly that there were voices like that calling for us to move in, to use force, to arrest people, to drive them off those streets," he told Galloway.

"My job was to resolve that peaceably ... to respect their right to lawful, peaceful protest, and at the same time, to work diligently to resolve that as peaceably as possible," he said.

He said there are people "who've never stood on those lines, who don't really understand the role of the police."

"The role of the police is not to go in and use force to bring about the end of these protests," he said.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Idella Sturino, Ines Colabrese and Cameron Perrier.

Corrections

  • This article previously described Peter MacKay as a sitting Conservative MP.
    Feb 26, 2020 1:41 PM ET