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Tensions flare in Commons over ongoing rail blockades
OTTAWA -- Tensions flared in the House of Commons Tuesday as MPs reconvened and immediately started debating the ongoing protests and rail blockades across Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced heavy criticism from opposition party leaders over the Liberal government's response to the escalating disputes, which he called a "critical moment" for Canada.
At issue is a planned natural gas pipeline that would cross Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C., though protesters resisting the project have cited other frustrations with the overall progress of reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada.
After the RCMP moved in to enforce an injunction at the site, protesters across the country blocked access to railway lines in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who oppose the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline project, though it has been approved by elected band councils.
These blockades have stopped CN Rail from transporting across the eastern rail network, have halted most Via Rail passenger service Canada-wide, and sparked calls from the opposition for Trudeau to return to Ottawa to respond to the situation.
After meeting with the cabinet operations committee, Trudeau delivered a special statement in the Chamber, stating that it's past the time to resolve these standoffs, and restated his desire to come to a quick and peaceful solution.
"This is a critical moment for our country and our future," Trudeau said, adding that the government is "creating a space for peaceful, honest dialogue with willing partners."
Trudeau began is speech with a land acknowledgement and made a point of saying that the relationship with Indigenous people in Canada remains the most important relationship to the Liberals.
"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."
Trudeau was heckled during his remarks to the point that House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota interjected, imploring MPs to "take a deep breath."
Responding to Trudeau, outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivered a sharp rebuke of the prime minister's remarks, calling them "the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history," and "word salad."
Scheer has been calling on Trudeau to have the RCMP intervene to end the blockades, and has questioned the motivations of those participating in the protests.
"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.
"They might have the luxury of not having to go to work every day, they may have the luxury of not facing repercussions for skipping class, but they are blockading our ports, our railways, and our borders and our roads and highways, and they are appropriating an Indigenous agenda which they are willfully misrepresenting," Scheer continued, adding that the federal Conservatives are standing with the impacted farmers, commuters, workers facing layoffs, and "in solidarity with the elected councils of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations."
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet questioned why it took Trudeau 12 days to get involved, saying his remarks on Tuesday sounded like a "virtuous" 2015 election speech.
"The solutions don't seem any more clear. The mistakes, however, are becoming more clear. It's as though in this place we had to decide between necessary respect for First Nations or the Canadian economy, as though it were irreconcilable," Blanchet said in French.
"As though it were not possible to find a solution to the crisis that would put large sectors of the Canadian and Quebec economy back into play without undermining what the First Nations want to discuss. I think that's possible," he continued.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that his thoughts are with the people at the blockades "who are standing up because they are so frustrated, they're so angry, and they're right to be angry."
Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May called it a "turning point for this country," and said that this is an issue of land, title, and justice more than it is a pipeline issue.
Independent B.C. MP and former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said that while she "appreciated" Trudeau's statement in the House, "leaders have to lead, and I would recommend that the prime minister get on a plane, pick up the premier [B.C. Premier John Horgan] and get up to Wet’suwet’en territory."
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe spoke out about the blockades on Twitter, saying that due to “a lack of federal leadership in addressing this ongoing illegal activity” he is convening a conference call Wednesday of Canada’s premiers.
Scheer 'disqualified' from high-level meeting
Blanchet, Singh and May were invited into a meeting with Trudeau and his ministers, after a cabinet meeting early Tuesday afternoon, but Scheer was not invited.
On her way out of the meeting, May said Scheer "disqualified himself" from participation with his earlier Commons speech.
Trudeau took it a step further, calling his speech "unacceptable."
Trudeau said during the "constructive" meeting the leaders discussed his government's approach to de-escalating the tense situation.
Responding to being excluded from the meeting, Scheer called it a "distraction" and a "communications exercise."
"I feel sorry for Mr. Singh and Mr. Blanchet and Ms. May that they were used in this way," he said.
The topic continued to dominate, with Tuesday's question period kicking off with a series of fiery exchanges between Scheer and Trudeau. Speaker Rota once again had to interject on the level of heckling happening in the House.
On their way into question period, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and Indigenous and Crown Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said that they are awaiting an invitation from the hereditary chiefs in B.C. to meet and establish the conditions for de-escalation, as quickly as possible.
"This has to be at their invitation… there is not a lot of trust," Bennett said.
Meanwhile outside of Parliament, the heads of Canada's major business associations have banded together to urge the government to address the ongoing protests. In a letter sent to Trudeau the stakeholders demanded the government take action – and fast.
Emergency debate Tuesday night
Within minutes of the day's proceedings getting underway, the Speaker granted a call from the NDP and Bloc Quebecois for an emergency debate on Canada's relationship with Indigenous peoples, which took place Tuesday evening.
In calling for the special late-night sitting to discuss the demonstrations, NDP House Leader Peter Julian called it a "crisis," and Rota, an Ontario Liberal MP, agreed.
The emergency debate was scheduled to get underway at 6:30 p.m, but didn’t actually start until later.
Across the street from Parliament Hill, Assembly of First Nations' National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Tuesday morning that time is needed for government and stakeholders to work with the Wet'suwet'en on solutions.
"We say we want to de-escalate and we want dialogue," Bellegarde said.
"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 accompanied by other chiefs who spoke about wanting a peaceful resolution and end of the blockades.