'We need to be patient': Indigenous leaders call for dialogue amid rail blockades
TORONTO -- Indigenous leaders are calling for the government to engage with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in hopes of finding a mutually beneficial solution to the ongoing rail blockades.
“I think we need to be patient and see what dialogue will bring,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday morning.
“Our people are taking action because they want to see action. And when they see positive action by the key players, when they see a commitment to real dialogue to address this difficult situation, people will respond in a positive way.”
Bellegarde was joined by four other Indigenous leaders at a press conference in Ottawa, but the group was split over whether or not the blockades should come to an end.
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon faced immediate backlash after he called for the blockades to come down.
“There are many ways of showing support. There are many ways of protesting something. It puts an enormous amount of pressure on governments and industry. So, do we look at the rail blockades as having served its purpose for now? I’m simply pleading with the protesters that have you made your point yet? Has the government and the industry understood? I think they did,” Simon said.
“Now, removing the blockades doesn’t mean you surrender anything. It just means you tell the government, OK, we’re going to show good faith.”
Shortly after those comments, a small group of protesters gathered outside Simon’s administrative office in Quebec to voice frustration with the leader.
Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton did not go so far as to call for the blockades to end, and instead insisted that there are several keys steps before that can happen.
“At some point in time, this has to come to a peaceful end. But in the meantime there are certain guarantees that everybody is looking for that need to be put in place. All the parties need to be able to work together to ensure that happens. It’s not incumbent on one group of people,” Norton said.
“Those people on the frontlines need to have the reassurance that their voice is heard, that the actions that they took have meaning, and something positive will come out of that. So when that happens, then you’re going to see a backing off and a quiet resolution to this.”
Tyendinaga Mohawk Council Chief R. Donald Maracle, who comes from the Belleville, Ont. community where one major blockade is in place, refused to say whether or not he thinks the blockades should come down.
“I don’t want to say something that would only inflame people that are protesting, not only in my community, but across the country,” Maracle said.
Instead, he said the conversation needs to be focused squarely on the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their concerns about the pipeline project crossing their territory.
“We need to hear from the traditional chiefs, what it is they object to and do they have a proposal to bring to the table that should be considered. And that’s where the attention should be,” he said.
Whatever the solution may be, advocate and former northern Manitoba grand chief Sheila North said it must be local and neither Bellegarde nor the Assembly of First Nations can be the voice for all Indigenous people.
“He can help and coordinate who needs to be there and show the importance of what needs to be highlighted. But then he needs to get out of the way and let that real dialogue happen,” North said.
Protesters across Canada are blocking rail lines in what many describe as a show of solidarity with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who have opposed the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project through their territory. The project has been approved by elected band councils along the route.
Those blockades have brought rail traffic to a standstill. CN Rail said it had no choice but to cancel its entire eastern rail network, and most Via Rail train service has been halted nationwide.
Business leaders have voiced frustration over the blockades and called on the federal government to take swift and strong action to end the shutdown.
"The damage inflicted on the Canadian economy and on the welfare of all our citizens mounts with each hour that these illegal disruptions are allowed to continue," a letter sent to Trudeau on Tuesday by business leaders reads.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the crisis in a speech in the House of Commons, calling the disputes a “critical moment” for Canada.
“Just like we need protesters and Indigenous leaders to be partners, we also need all Canadians to show resolve and collaboration," he said. "We cannot solve these problems on the margins. That is not the way forward. I know that people’s patience is running short. We need to find a solution. And we need to find it now."
Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer slammed the prime minister's remarks, calling them "the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history.”
"Standing between our country and prosperity is a small group of radical activists, many of whom have little to no connection to First Nations communities. A bunch of radical activists who won't rest until our oil and gas industry is entirely shut down," Scheer said.
Back at the blockade near Belleville, Karen Randall Blanchet stopped by to hand out pizza and coffee to the protesters. She brought her two children along with her for the visit.
“I think that a lot of people believe that this is a violent protest, and it’s not. It’s a very peaceful protest by people who are trying to protect the environment,” she said.