Canada doesn't tell police what to do, Trudeau says of rail blockades

MUNICH — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he has no plans to order the RCMP to end the blockades of vital rail links across the country.

"We are not the kind of country where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters," Trudeau said Friday in Munich, where he was attending a global security conference.

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That message stood in contrast to one from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who earlier Friday called on Trudeau to order Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to use his authority under the RCMP Act to end what he called the "illegal blockades" by Indigenous Peoples at the centre of a dispute over a British Columbia pipeline project.

He said they are harming the Canadian economy and disrupting the livelihoods of farmers and small-business owners.

"These blockades are illegal," Scheer told reporters in Ottawa. "So far, the prime minister has refused to come out and call them that, himself."

Earlier Friday, Trudeau had said there are no easy answers to the dispute.

"You need to know we have failed our Indigenous peoples over generations, over centuries. And there is no quick fix to it," Trudeau said, adding that all parties must move towards reconciliation.

"We also are, obviously, a country of laws. And making sure that those laws are enforced, even as there is, of course, freedom to demonstrate free and to protest," he said. "Getting that balance right and wrapping it up in the path forward ... is really important."

But Scheer said the RCMP needs to respond to restore order and uphold the law — and the government needs to demand that. He said the pipeline project has support among many elected band councils from First Nations along the pipeline route, including the Wet'suwet'en.

If the law isn't enforced, Scheer said the Trudeau government will be setting a "dangerous precedent that a small few can have a devastating impact on the lives of countless Canadians."

"For many of these anti-energy activists, this is just a warm-up act" to block other energy projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and the Teck Frontier oilsands mine in northeastern Alberta, he said.

"We cannot allow a small number of activists to hold our economy hostage and threaten thousands of jobs," said Scheer.

Tensions were expected to heat up on Friday with the added threat of activists planning to shut down government offices in British Columbia's capital.

Protests continue as political leaders look to negotiate solutions, while business leaders, opposition politicians and ordinary people call for immediate action to end the disruptions, which have already seen more than 80 arrests.

Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan spoke Thursday about the need to work together to resolve the pipeline tensions that have resulted in solidarity blockades in Ontario, Manitoba and B.C.

Indigenous leaders in B.C.'s northwest have invited federal and provincial politicians to meetings to find solutions, and said they would ensure a blockade of a Canadian National Railway track near New Hazelton, B.C., would come down during talks.

CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis confirmed Friday morning the New Hazelton blockade had been lifted.

The railway said Thursday it was starting a progressive shutdown in the East, while Via Rail cancelled all service on CN tracks in Canada.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau said freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are among the most cherished of rights, but added he is "deeply concerned" about the disruption of rail services.

There is a risk of seeing the disruptions merely as interference with the operations of profit-making companies, but they affect all Canadians, he told a news conference Friday in Toronto.

"But it is about people's jobs and livelihoods and about the transport of key supplies like food, propane, heating oil and chemicals for water treatment, agricultural products for export and so many other products," he said.

Garneau, who was meeting his provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as representatives of national Indigenous organizations, stressed that he hopes there will be peaceful resolutions to the blockade disputes.

The blockades began last week after RCMP enforced an injunction against Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who were blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, a key part of the $40-billion LNG Canada export project.

Horgan has rejected calls from the Opposition Liberals to seek immediate injunctions to end the blockades and protests in B.C.

"We can't just use force," he said in the legislature. "It needs to be dealt with by co-operation, by consultation, by discussion so that we can all move forward."

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said Horgan was taking an "entirely passive approach in the face of implacable protesters who are intent on shutting down constituency services, shutting down the universities, shutting down our transportation arteries."

Groups including Grain Growers of Canada, Forest Products Association of Canada and the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters have said rail delays caused by the blockades are hurting their members and the economy.

Teamsters Canada, the country's largest union in the transportation sector, called on the federal government to intervene.

The union warned the impasse could put up to 6,000 employees at CN and other rail companies out of work.

Protesters have threatened to block government buildings in Victoria on Friday, but late Thursday a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted an injunction against further blockades at the legislature.

Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with all 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route.

However, Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs assert title to a vast 22,000-square-kilometre area and say band councils only have authority over reserve lands.

More than two dozen people have been arrested in the pipeline construction area near Houston, B.C., by RCMP enforcing an injunction order. Vancouver Police arrested more than 50 people this week enforcing an injunction order against people blocking access to Vancouver area ports.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2020.

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