The latest trouble began in early February with rail blockades in Canada over a natural gas pipeline project that crosses traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en indigenous band in northwestern British Columbia.
Soon protesters created a rail roadblock in Ontario, and sympathy protests popped up as far away as the Maritime provinces, hundreds of miles from the site where Coastal GasLink plans a $5-billion project.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau characterized the situation as “a critical moment for our country and our future.”
The controversy has stalled transport, disrupted business operations, created new tensions between Canada’s white majority and its indigenous people — and presented Trudeau with the biggest challenge of his more than four years in office.
Besieged by demands from business leaders, criticized by political foes and frustrated by his inability to fulfill satisfy campaign promises to native Canadians, the prime minister is losing patience with the situation and is struggling to determine how to disperse the protesters who oppose the pipeline. It would run 416 miles from northeastern British Columbia to the Pacific coast.
“Here’s the reality: Every attempt at dialogue has been made,” he said. “The discussions have not been productive. We can’t have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table. For this reason, we have no choice but to stop making the same overtures. Of course, we will never close the door on dialogue, and our hand remains extended should someone want to reach for it.”
Demonstrations have clogged the streets of downtown Montreal and the highways of rural Manitoba. And uncertainty remains over whether chiefs in northern British Columbia will consent to a meeting that might end the impasse that has disrupted the travel plans of tens of thousands of people.
Canadian National Railway Co. said it was laying off about 450 employees temporarily as a result of the travel stoppage created by the blockades. Via Rail Canada, which operates passenger service, also is cutting 1,000 employees. Business leaders claim millions of dollars of commerce already has been lost, energy company executives say crucial supplies of propane used in heating homes are at risk, and food distributors worry that perishable meat and poultry shipments are endangered.
It is a classic imbroglio in a country that can be preoccupied with the ability to move people and products from place to place during persistently cold and snowy winters. It involves questions about who rightly owns the vast continental expanse of the country and even the legitimacy of Royal Canadian Mounted Police checkpoints. Indeed, the decision of the Mounties late Thursday to move off tribal territory offered a glimmer of hope that the impasse might be broken with negotiations.
A bewildering element of the pipeline episode — frustrating to Trudeau, to First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, and to the nearly three dozen business associations that are demanding that Trudeau bring the crisis to an end — is confusion about how to defuse the matter. Individual provinces and territories have a lot of power— a phenomenon that has been the subject of continuing, and enormous, contention for half a century.
The current controversy covers a lot of ground, including environmental concerns about the effect the pipeline would have on British Columbia’s rivers and the risk of a rupture of the gas pipeline; climate activist Greta Thunberg has demonstrated her support to the protesters in a tweet to her 4 million followers.
It also illustrates continuing conflicts over the rights of businesses to conduct their affairs in lands that native Canadians consider theirs and thus should be controlled by them. Long-standing property and civic issues date to colonial times — and grow out of conflicting views of the Mounties, who have roamed the Canadian West since 1873, when they were known as the North-West Mounted Rifles. They have not been forgiven by the tribes for their role in enforcing the residential boarding school system in which aboriginals were abused and native customs were erased.
The conflict has befuddled Trudeau, who favors a light touch in politics and who faced criticism in the autumn election campaign for failing to meet the expansive promises he made to improve living and economic conditions for indigenous Canadians when he first ran for prime minister in 2015.
First, he pleaded for calm, saying in the House of Commons, “Those who would want us to act in haste, who want us to boil this down to slogans and ignore the complexities, who think that using force is helpful — it is not.”
Then, he abruptly changed his tone, saying, “The barricades must now come down. The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld.”
He did not, however, offer any solutions to the problem. And his remarks served only to inflame his critics.
Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader whom Trudeau defeated four months ago and who bears the title of opposition leader, derided the prime minister’s handling of the matter as “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.”
Some of Trudeau’s Liberal colleagues in Parliament have grown impatient. And in a front-page commentary in the conservative National Post newspaper Wednesday, columnist John Ivison, a persistent critic of Trudeau, pilloried the prime minister, arguing, “Trudeau has been prone to being prone on the blockades. Anyone hoping he’d condemn protests by a tiny minority that threatens real hardship for the vast majority were sorely disappointed.”
Meanwhile, sympathetic groups were recruiting allies to participate in the protests, even promising travel stipends.
On Tuesday, protesters descended on the home of British Columbia Premier John Horgan, whose budget they argued would "fund further injury” to indigenous peoples and threatened to make a citizen’s arrest. Canadian authorities also have made threats, though they have not pressed a court injunction to end the blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near Belleville, Ontario, the site of the original protests.
There are echoes from a 78-day episode in 1990, when Mohawks, who have been in the Montreal area since they were lured there for religious conversion from ancient tribal lands by Jesuit missionaries in the early 18th century, erected a blockade to protest plans to expand a golf course into lands they claimed in Oka, Quebec. That dispute quickly become part of Canadian popular culture, spawning movies, books, even a punk rock song.
The National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary called “Acts of Defiance” that itself spawned protests, including claims that the Mohawks were portrayed in heroic defiance of legitimate political authority. A second film, “Kanehsatake,” portrayed the confrontation — as characterized by Randolph Lewis, a professor of American studies at the University of Texas — as a conflict between “state violence and indigenous sovereignty.”
That is precisely the characterization that Trudeau — who described the pipeline dispute as unacceptable — wants to avoid three decades later.
Shribman is a special correspondent.