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Don Martin: Trudeau should stay away from this perfect storm of Indigenous-energy conflict
The optics are severely squeamish.
The prime minister set out to prove he’s back on the world stage by touring Africa to land votes for a temporary UN Security Council seat, which comes with some prestige, little power and plenty of future Donald Trump headaches.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Justin Trudeau’s signature policy priority is in flames.
Indigenous reconciliation is burning down across Canada, sparked by a blockade to support hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs aiming to stop construction on a massive natural gas line cutting through their territorial claim to the B.C. coast.
But based on Trudeau’s comments so far, specifically his support for peaceful (but illegal) protest while crossing his fingers to hope for constructive (likely confrontational) dialogue, he’s basically a helpless bystander.
In so many ways, this is the perfect storm of Indigenous-energy conflict.
The Wet’suwet’en protest lays bare the mission impossible for future energy projects seeking consent to proceed from the First Nations they impact.
Despite having the environmental go-ahead from governments, green light rulings from the courts and thumbs up from elected bands, which see this as an economic imperative, the Coastal GasLink project still can’t find an unobstructed road to completion.
And lest we forget, this is a natural gas pipeline, which would not cause the severe environmental damage an oil or bitumen rupture would unleash.
That’s why a cyclonic swirl is forming.
Police enforcing the law are attracting national and international media exposure, which generates wider protest by publicity-seeking advocates.
Spreading protest triggers economic interruption, which turns the public tide against Indigenous causes.
And when public and business opinion hardens, political resolve to confront and clear the barricades increases.
Then the cycle repeats itself with greater tension, inflamed emotion and a rising risk of violent confrontation.
Yet to ignore a court order to dismantle the barricades has the similarly negative impact of reducing public sympathies.
The public fumes at the double standard of Indigenous lawbreakers escaping police action against barricades while they get ticketed for failing to shovel a sidewalk.
Even buying peace with more cash is not an answer. It just confirms it’s all just a money-grab, which leads to more outstretched palms seeking more grease down the road.
This has suddenly become a vexing, intractable problem for the prime minister.
Sure, he can dispatch Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to listen. He seems to have a commendable understanding of these issues, but what can Miller offer by way of a tangible solution? Nothing comes to mind.
Perhaps Trudeau could follow the B.C. premier’s lead, hold his partisan nose and turn to former NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who knows every inch of the riding which encompasses the Wet’suwet’en nation, for advice on mediating a way forward.
But there’s really no obvious end to continued confrontation as time runs out on public patience.
Wise voices close to the scene tell me it’s not yet entirely hopeless, but insist progress will only take place within the First Nation itself or in talks with British Columbia taking the lead.
So unless he wants to do one of his white knight charges onto the battlefield with cameras rolling, armed with good intentions that aren’t nearly good enough, Trudeau might as well stay an ocean away, safely delivering mush into the microphones.