EDMONTON/TORONTO — Police arrested protesters occupying Wet’suwet’en land over the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on Monday, as activists disrupted trade and travel plans across the country in a bid to draw attention to the dispute.
It marks a noted expansion of the protests that had, mostly, been isolated deep in the B.C. interior, roughly an hour south of Smithers, B.C., in a countrywide — and indeed international — outpouring of support.
In downtown Edmonton, protesters chanted and sang in the lobby of the Enbridge Centre, handing out pamphlets that declared “Canada must respect Indigenous law.”
On the other side of the country, a four-day blockade of railway tracks near Belleville, Ont., by protesters from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, led to the cancellations of more than 200 passenger and freight trains on the critical route between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, disrupting travel plans for more than 19,500 Via Rail Canada passengers and halting CN Rail cars already loaded with goods and commodities.
And, early Monday, the fifth day of a blockade of four port terminals in Vancouver and Delta, B.C., came to an end as Vancouver and Delta police enforced a court injunction that had been issued Sunday afternoon, arresting 47 people who failed to vacate Vancouver Fraser Port authority lands.
The weekend saw large solidarity marches before Vancouver city hall; a ceremonial flame lit by protesters burns on the steps of the B.C. legislature in Victoria.
The $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink project spans some 670 kilometres, carrying natural gas from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Kitimat, on the northwestern B.C. coast. The pipeline route goes through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory.
While some 20 elected band councils have signed agreements with Coastal GasLink Ltd., five hereditary chiefs have objected to the pipeline partially crossing the 22,000 square kilometres they say are under their jurisdiction.
Ellis Ross, a B.C. member of the legislature and former chief councillor of the Haisla Nation, said he sees the protests as meant for those who don’t live in the affected areas and who don’t understand Indigenous rights and title.
“It’s geared for the coffee shops in Toronto, it’s geared for the San Francisco crowd that have no idea,” Ellis said. “They have no idea, or no interest, in why First Nations leaders were signing onto these major projects.”
In Ottawa, Sophia, a protester who didn’t want her last name used, told the Post about 20 people had occupied the Ministry of Justice building in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en. The group hoped that several requests would be fulfilled, including upholding the obligations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Very simply, if Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have said ‘no’ to an extractive resource project on their territories … then they should be able to say ‘no’ to whatever they’d like,” Sophia said. “The RCMP actively arresting and detaining people on their own lands is not what I call reconciliation.”
Ross said he fears that there’s intimidation and the risk of injury in the future. Police said last month they found trees that were half-cut and at risk of falling down, and launched a criminal investigation after fuel and tires were found. Ellis decried language he says he’s seen online, worrying that it could lead to violence.
“It’s lateral violence of natives against natives,” Ross said. “And there’s also this idea that somehow we’re pitting white people, or colonialists, up against natives, and if it gets out of hand, that has the potential to lead to violence.”
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, following a Calgary speech on Canada’s economic outlook on Monday, told reporters he felt police were “dealing with this in an appropriate manner.”
“We’ve obviously seen projects that are legally approved but have still had some challenges,” Morneau said of the Coastal GasLink project. “In a country where we enable people to have free speech, have their point of view, we are always going to have people that don’t agree with the process that we’ve gone through.”
As Canada’s economy grapples with disruption from coronavirus, rail blockades in Belleville, Ont., and Hazelton, B.C., have further impeded trade corridors.
We respect the right of people to protest, but we don’t think they should be doing it on CN track
Sean Finn, executive vice-president, Canadian National Railway
Canadian National Railway Co.’s main line is blocked in Belleville, causing a “severe” impact to operations by preventing movement of consumer goods, propane, grain, lumber and steel across the country.
“There is no train service between eastern and Western Canada as we speak,” CN executive vice president Sean Finn said in an interview. “We respect the right of people to protest, but we don’t think they should be doing it on CN track.”
The economic impact is unclear so far, but a strike that halted CN’s operations last fall cost the railway an estimated $18 million per day.
CN’s Aboriginal affairs team has engaged with protesters while its legal team obtained court orders to resume traffic. Their efforts have been unsuccessful thus far.
Canadian Pacific Railway has also been impacted by the blockades and is monitoring the situation.
On the west coast, Canada’s largest port expects to take a “significant” hit from the protests given disruptions to imports and exports, according to a statement from the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.
“It’s too early to know exactly what the dollar value of these disruptions has been, but generally one dollar in three of Canada’s trade beyond North America moves through the Vancouver gateway,” port spokeswoman Danielle Jang added in an email.
With files from Geoffrey Morgan, the Vancouver Sun, the Edmonton Journal and The Canadian Press.