Business group blasts government inaction on Wet'suwet'en solidarity blockade near rail line
TORONTO -- A major Canadian business group says it's time for the government and police to step in and end the blockade near a major rail line by protesters supporting the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in their fight to stop a gas pipeline from running through their traditional territory without their approval.
"Until we have rail service resumed, I would say no level of government is fulfilling its duties to help uphold the rule of law and ensure that commerce can flow freely throughout our country," Ryan Greer, senior director of transportation policy for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday on CTV's Your Morning.
A protest near a rail line outside Belleville, Ont. has disrupted train travel along the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor since Feb. 6.
Unwilling to send trains so close to the blockade, Via Rail has cancelled all service from Toronto to and from Ottawa and Montreal, affecting thousands of passengers.
There have also been substantial impacts on freight rail service. CN, which says the Belleville link is its only way of connecting Eastern Canada to Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest, will temporarily halt service along what it describes as "significant parts of its network."
The rail operator says it has obtained an injunction to shut down the two protests near Belleville. Police have asked the protesters to leave, but have yet to intervene physically.
According to Greer, that isn't just a problem for CN; it's an issue that affects the entire Canadian economy.
"This is having far-reaching impacts on businesses of all sizes in all parts of the country," he said.
"Rail lines are in effect the circulatory system of the Canadian economy. We're talking about impact on business imports, consumer goods, items for export, perishable food items, Canadian natural resources and manufactured goods, Canadian grain, the chemicals that are used to de-ice planes or in water treatment plants in various communities, propane for communities in Quebec and Atlantic Canada."
Those concerns were echoed by Bob Masterson, president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, in an interview with CTV News Channel.
"We're approaching a crisis, and we don't see the sense of urgency that we believe we need to see from provincial and federal authorities," Masterson said Thursday.
Masterson said the lack of advance warning about the protests makes the situation in Belleville very different than the one faced last November, when CN Rail service was disrupted by a workers' strike. He added that by allowing the protests to continue, the government is sending "very negative signals" to the rest of the world.
"The global investors looking at Canada are asking the question … do they not have a rule of law?" he said.
Greer suggested a prolonged disruption to rail service would lead companies to make "business decisions" that could include layoffs.
He said the federal government, provincial government and police should find a way to immediately end the blockades.
"This needs to be the single most important thing that they're dealing with yesterday, today and tomorrow," he said.
"We are hearing from companies that this is extremely, extremely challenging for their operations."
For the protesters and their supporters, though, creating those sorts of challenges to the status quo is exactly what they are hoping to accomplish.
"I think this is significantly important to bring it to the greater attention of Canada and to get more people to understand what's going on," Lori Campbell, director of the Waterloo Indigenous Education Centre in Ontario, said Wednesday on CTV News Channel.
"Many people in Canada don't really understand – they think it is just a fight against the pipeline."
Transport Minister Marc Garneau has called the two blockades near Belleville "illegal" and "dangerous," noting their impact on economic activity, and said enforcing injunctions against protesters is a provincial responsibility, not a federal one.
The rail line protest is the most disruptive of the many that have sprung up across the country in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in northern B.C. and their fight against LNG Canada, which wants to build the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline.
The hereditary chiefs, who held ultimate Indigenous authority over the Wet'suwet'en traditional territory before the Indian Act of 1876 set out a framework for bands and elections, argue that they hold title over a 22,000-square-kilometre area that includes part of the proposed pipeline route.
"What I think we're fighting for is for Indigenous rights and Indigenous laws – and indeed national, international law – to be upheld, for the Wet'suwet'en people to govern and have sovereignty over their territory," Campbell said.
All 20 elected band councils along the route have approved the pipeline.
Coastal GasLink was granted an injunction against the protesters on Dec. 31, 2019, and the RCMP started enforcing it last week by arresting protesters. There have been 28 arrests since then.