Justin Trudeau has demanded that protesters lift railway blockades that have been erected across Canada in support of Indigenous activists who are fighting a natural gas pipeline.
“The situation as it currently stands is unacceptable and untenable,” the prime minister said on Friday afternoon. “Canadians have been patient. Our government has been patient. But it has been two weeks, and the barricades need to come down now.”
Rail barricades – both on and outside Indigenous reserves – have sprung up across the country in solidarity with members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation who are opposing a C$6.6bn (US$4.98bn) natural gas pipeline in British Columbia.
The blockades have been blamed for 1,400 layoffs at Canada’s main rail companies, propane shortages in eastern Canada and economic hardship for farmers.
Trudeau’s comments came just days after he pledged in parliament to continue dialogue with Wet’suwet’en activists leading protests against the 416-mile Coastal GasLink pipeline. Many other Nations have signed benefits agreements with the company in exchange for their green light on the project.
After Trudeau’s press conference, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Woos repeated the band’s call for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to withdraw from its land and a halt in construction before talks could begin.
“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,” he said.
The Wet’suwet’en nation have lived on their territories in what is now British Columbia for thousands of years. They have never signed treaties or sold their land to Canada.
With a population of about 5,000, the Wet’suwet’en are composed of five clans (Gilseyhu, Likhts’amisyu, Laksilyu, Tsayu and Gidimt’en), which are further divided into 13 house groups, each with its own distinct territories.
The Unist’ot’en, the People of the Headwaters, belong to the Gilseyhu clan.
Hereditary chiefs are responsible for the health and sustainability of their house group territories, and Wet’suwet’en law prohibits trespass on the territory of other the house groups.
Wet’suwet’en people have retained their legal traditions and continue to govern themselves through the Bahtlats (feast hall), where decisions are ratified and clan business is conducted.
On Thursday, the federal public security minister agreed to pull RCMP police officers out of Wet’suwet’en territory, but late on Friday afternoon, the Wet’suwet’en nation said that rather than leave, police had had actually “increased harassment, made illegal arrests, increased surveillance and monitoring of Wet’suwet’en people and their invited guests.”
Glen Coulthard, an associate professor in political science and the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program at the University of British Columbia, and a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, predicted that Trudeau’s comments would escalate the conflict.
“He has placed the onus, the burden of proof, on Indigenous peoples to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation on his terms – or on the terms of a weaponized majority – by pitting so-called ‘regular Canadians and workers’ against Indigenous peoples who have been rendered minorities on their homeland due to colonization and a history of genocide,” said Coulthard.
In the Canadian context, the word “reconciliation” is comparable to the issue of reparations for slavery in the US and UK. It speaks to the amends Canada has agreed to make to compensate for generations of abuse, racism and other crimes against Indigenous peoples.
Trudeau has come under increasing political pressure to end the protests. Andrew Scheer, leader of the official opposition, has branded the protesters “radical activists” and has called on Trudeau to send in the police.