Trudeau says indigenous groups must end crippling rail blockades

Michel COMTE
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Police moved in to clear this indigenous protest blocking a key rail corridor near Belleville, Ontario, Canada

Police moved in to clear this indigenous protest blocking a key rail corridor near Belleville, Ontario, Canada (AFP Photo/Lars Hagberg)

Ottawa (AFP) - Crippling blockades of key Canadian rail arteries "must now come down," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday, acknowledging that attempts at dialogue to end two weeks of indigenous protests had failed.

"The situation as it currently stands is unacceptable and untenable," Trudeau told a press conference in Ottawa, adding that "Canadians have been patient. Our government has been patient. But it has been two weeks."

"The barricades must now come down. The injunctions (against protesters) must be obeyed and the law must be upheld," he said, opening the door to police moving in to clear the blockades.

What had started as a localized protest by members of the Wet'suwet'en tribe opposed to a natural-gas pipeline in British Columbia quickly spread across the country as others joined efforts to "shut down Canada."

A blockade by Mohawks on a major rail line east of Toronto forced the continent's third largest railway, Canadian National Railway (CN), to shut down operations in eastern Canada.

And the Canadian Chamber of Commerce warned that "essential supplies like grain for livestock, oxygen for hospitals and propane for residential heating" would soon be depleted.

Trudeau has made reconciliation with indigenous peoples a priority.

But the disruptions to rail traffic -- the backbone of Canada's transportation infrastructure, moving more than Can$250 billion ($190 billion) in goods annually -- has in just two weeks led to supply shortages and thousands of temporary layoffs.

- Overtures unanswered -

Under pressure to end the crisis, Trudeau sought to establish a dialogue with indigenous leaders behind the protests.

Federal police, meanwhile, said they would retreat from the site on Wet'suwet'en lands where protesters blocked workers building the Can$6.6 billion (US$5 billion) Coastal GasLink pipeline connecting to a new Pacific coast terminal for shipping to overseas markets.

But on Friday, Trudeau said those official overtures had gone unanswered.

"We can't have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table," he said. "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."

As Trudeau spoke, Wet'suwet'en and Mohawk protest leaders met on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory in Ontario.

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Woos, who also goes by the name Frank Alec, told reporters: "We heard Prime Minister Trudeau just a little while ago talking about the inconvenience Canada has suffered. However, there is a difference between inconvenience and injustice. Don't confuse one with the other."

Woos reiterated protestors' conditions for talks with the federal government: for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to leave Wet'suwet'en territory in northern British Columbia and for construction of the pipeline to be suspended.

"If they show respect, definitely we'll start talking," Woos added.

Until now, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Surete du Quebec had kept a watch on protests near Belleville, Ontario and more recently another immediately south of Montreal.

But they had been reluctant to use force to dislodge the protestors, cognisant that violent clashes between police and indigenous peoples in past decades had led to the deaths of a Quebec policeman and a protester in Ontario.