Feds say RCMP offer to move off Wet'suwet'en land 'significant' step towards ending blockades

Published Feb. 20, 2020 10:07 a.m. ET
Updated Feb. 20, 2020 3:54 p.m. ET

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OTTAWA -- The federal government says the British Columbia RCMP’s offer to move from their position on Wet’suwet’en territory to a nearby town is a "significant" step towards ending the ongoing blockades.

"These are opportunities to come to a peaceful resolution, which is what we've always aimed for," said Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller, accompanied by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett after meeting with the federal cabinet.

"The step that was made by the B.C. RCMP was significant, it reflects the professionalism of the police forces across the country. It is something we respect, we believe that is a significant step to ensuring that this situation resolves in very short order," Miller said

Earlier Thursday Blair told reporters that given the RCMP has met this condition of repositioning, he believes it's now time for the protesters to remove their barricades.

"The RCMP — I think in a very appropriate pursuit of less confrontation and in the goal of peacekeeping — have agreed to continue to serve the area but by locating their people in a nearby town, which is entirely their decision but I think the right one," Blair said, adding that he thinks this should bring the situation to a point where it can be resolved.

Protests and demonstrations have been ongoing across Canada in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation who oppose the planned Coastal GasLink pipeline project to carry natural gas to the B.C. coast.

The nationwide response comes after the RCMP moved to enforce a court injunction earlier this month, against a blockade at an access road to the project's work site.

The chiefs had asked that the RCMP move off of their land before any further de-escalation talks with provincial and federal leaders could go forward.

RCMP sent letter to chiefs

Blair said that the B.C. RCMP have sent a letter to the hereditary chiefs offering to deploying their police officers from the nearby town of Houston, B.C.

“They are changing their profile on the property," Blair said, calling it a "sound operational decision" made by the RCMP.

"I'm hoping that… the condition that the people said was the reason for the barricades has now been met," Blair said. "I think now the circumstances are such that those barricades should come down… now it's time to move forward."

In an email, RCMP spokesperson Janelle Shoihet confirmed that Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Strachan sent a letter on Wednesday to the hereditary chiefs and that in an internal letter to all B.C. RCMP employees she "outlined her appreciation for the professionalism displayed during the enforcement of the B.C. Supreme Court injunction and subsequent demonstrations."

According to Shoihet, Strachan said that the decision to "re-assess" their presence was an "important acknowledgement," and noted that the RCMP's presence has been viewed as "a barrier to further dialogue."

Cabinet discusses status of standoff

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with his cabinet on Parliament Hill Thursday morning, with his minority Liberal government under pressure to resolve the situation as rail service continues to be impeded across much of the country due to the demonstrations.

On his way into the meeting Trudeau said the government is "working very hard to end the blockades," calling it once again "an unacceptable situation."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted Thursday morning that with the RCMP "allowing discussions to happen," it is "now up to the PM to show some leadership."

The premiers have called for a meeting with Trudeau, as he and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland have been speaking separately with several provincial leaders, including B.C.'s John Horgan.

Trudeau took a call Thursday night with all of the premiers, as an opportunity to work together towards "a peaceful and lasting resolution."

Addressing reporters in B.C. Thursday, Horgan said that he is happy to work with the hereditary leadership "when the circumstances are there for a positive outcome," and that he looks forward to hearing from Trudeau on what the "plan forward is."

Ministers ready to meet

Bennett and her provincial counterpart in B.C. have offered to meet with hereditary chiefs in Smithers, B.C. to "address the urgent and longer term issues at hand" as early as Thursday. Other chiefs have travelled to Ontario too, to meet with First Nation communities that have set up solidarity blockades, cutting off a critical freight and passenger rail line. A meeting between these chiefs and members of the Mohawk nation is set to happen tomorrow, "to discuss related political issues."

During an interview on CTV’s Power Play on Thursday, Secretary for the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake Kenneth Deer said Mohawk leaders will follow the direction of the hereditary chiefs about whether to stand down and end the blockade at Tyendinaga, Ont.

"If the chiefs are satisfied with any conditions they are able to get from Canada, thank us for supporting them, and ask us to take down the barricades, then we’ll take down the barricades," said Deer. "But if Canada betrays them, they’ll go right back up again."

Both Via Rail and CN Rail have announced temporary layoffs as a result of the suspension of service, and as tensions continue to fray in recent days there have been confrontations at blockades between the demonstrators and counter-protesters.

Across the country, the situation remains fluid. In Quebec, CN Rail has received a court injunction to end a rail blockade south of Montreal, while according to The Canadian Press, another blockade has gone up east of Kamloops.

“We just hope that’s enough room to get on with the dialogue,” Bennett told reporters.

She and Miller restated Thursday afternoon that they are ready and able to travel to have further in-person discussions as soon as the chiefs would like, and in question period Miller said the pair "stand ready to engage with leadership in Tyendinaga as soon and as early as tonight to go and meet them and discuss this peaceful resolution."

Without an imminent indication that the rail shutdown will end, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said that she is looking at "practical" ways to support the Canadian farming community, whose livelihoods have been impacted by the inability to move products by rail.

Conservatives call for action

In the House of Commons MPs are debating a motion from the Conservatives that calls on the House to "stand in solidarity with every elected band council on the Coastal GasLink route, the majority of hereditary chiefs, and the vast majority of the Wet’suwet’en people, who support the Coastal GasLink project, and condemn the radical activists who are exploiting divisions within the Wet’suwet’en community, holding the Canadian economy hostage, and threatening jobs and opportunities in Indigenous communities."

Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has called on Trudeau to intervene and order the end to the protests, and told reporters on Thursday that he views the latest development, with the RCMP willing to reposition, a "concession" from the Liberals.

"My concern is what happens now? Now that these people who are breaking the law and these radical activists see that they can get concessions from this government, what kind of message does that send, and what future protests and what future illegal activity we'll see for future projects?" Scheer said.

Conservative leadership hopefuls Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay are also weighing in on the ongoing disputes.

O’Toole’s camp sent out a press release on Thursday with a four-point bullet list of what he would do under the circumstances.

Among other priorities, he lists passing a “Freedom of Movement Act” which proposes to protect central railways, ports, highways, and bridges as “critical national infrastructure” from protests that prevent essential transportation of people and supply. Failing to comply, he proposes, would result in a criminal offence. He said he would also make a formal declaration that the government supports court injunctions so that police, without political interference, can and should clear blockades as soon as they appear.

Peter MacKay, for his part, took to Twitter to express his disdain for the protests, but shortly thereafter backtracked on his comments. At first, he came out in support of counter-protesters who broke down a CN Rail blockade in Edmonton and later clarified his comments saying “I stand with the workers, producers and suppliers who work hard, obey the law, care for their neighbors and keep Canada the best place in the world to live.”

With files from CTV News' Sarah Turnbull and Heather Wright


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