Canada's transport system has been brought to a standstill for the past three weeks. Indigenous people and their supporters have been blocking many freight and passenger routes across the country, in protest against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. With the impacts of the rail blockades heightening concerns around the country’s wider economic state, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under increasing pressure to take action.
The Coastal GasLink pipeline will cover a total of 670km to ship natural gas from the north-eastern part of British Columbia to the coast, intruding into native lands in the process. Since the C$6.6bn project was set in motion in 2012, it has reached deals with 20 indigenous councils, including some Wet’suwet’en councils. As part of the agreement, the company promised to provide training, employment opportunities and investments. Nonetheless, there have been ongoing tensions and disagreements between elected and hereditary chiefs.
While the elected council are responsible for implementing government legislation over the boundaries of the reserves, the hereditary chiefs are in control of the traditional lands. The indigenous protesters are not allowing the project to progress past their territory as they are concerned about its impact on their land and natural resources. Chief Na’Moks of the Tsayu clan voiced such concerns as he emphasised “you always have to put the environment first”.
For years, Coastal GasLink and hereditary leaders have been unable to come to terms. While the company claimed to have consulted the hereditary leaders, the chiefs have denied such a statement. Chief Na’Moks said “we ensured that we stated at any meetings that these meetings cannot be misconstructed as ‘consultation’”.
The conflict is not simply about the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, it is also associated with wider issues surrounding indigenous people’s rights and Canada’s reconciliation with them. During his presidential campaign, Trudeau had promised a restoration of friendly relations with indigenous groups. Therefore, despite firmly asserting that “barricades must now come down and the [court] injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld”, his Liberal government has been prioritising peaceful measures.
Emphasising the need for patience and consultation, he had left it for the police to decide their approach in executing the court’s orders for each of their own juris-dictions. Although the police have largely refrained from using force or violence to uphold the court’s demands, stronger measures have been taken more recently.
Earlier this month, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) removed protesters and their camps from construction sites. This attempt to clear some blockades has involved a few indigenous protesters being arrested by the police force. Nonetheless, blockades and protests are continuing to paralyse rail lines, ports and highways in other parts of Canada.
Over the past three weeks, Trudeau has been trying to resolve the long drawn out conflict through more dialogue. Nonetheless, it appears to be a complex issue to untangle. The two parties are looking at the other to solve the issue. While Trudeau has now put the responsibility on indigeneous leaders to put an end to the protests, hereditary chief Woos of Wet’suwet’en has requested for RCMP to leave their ter-ritory and the construction works to be halted before talks can begin. He said, “if they show respect, definitely we’ll start talking”.
The protests have harmed thousands in the rail industry; hun-dreds of trains have become redundant and almost 1,500 rail workers have been laid off. As frustration and concerns about the wider economic repercussions are increasing, Trudeau is under mounting pressure to resolve the matter.