National News

Federal minister, B.C. premier try for meetings with chiefs over blockades

By The Canadian Press

Published 10:31 PST, Thu February 13, 2020

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller and British Columbia Premier John Horgan are working to arrange meetings with Indigenous leaders in an effort to halt blockades of rail lines that have choked Canada's economy.

Miller wrote a letter to three chiefs in Ontario regarding a protest on Tyendinaga Mohawk traditional territory that has halted freight and passenger traffic between Toronto and Montreal. He offered to meet at a location of their choice on Saturday.

"My request, that I ask you kindly to consider, is to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable. As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of the utmost importance to me," Miller said in the email, a copy of which he posted publicly Thursday morning.

"I hope you will agree to this request and that we can meet in the spirit of peace and co-operation that should guide our relationship."

Horgan also publicly released a letter Thursday addressed to Simogyet Spookw, who also goes by Norman Stephens, a chief of the Gitxsan Nation in B.C. In the letter, the premier thanked the chief for reaching out to his office to propose a meeting with hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en Nation.

"I confirm our government's willingness to participate in such a meeting," Horgan said, adding that his office has urged the federal government to respond as quickly as possible to the proposal.

"I understand that on receipt of this letter and a similar commitment from Canada, the blockade of the CN line will be removed to allow for a period of calm and peaceful dialogue."

A spokesman for the premier's office confirmed that Horgan is referring to a blockade set up near New Hazelton, B.C.

Stephens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Blockade organizers across Canada have said they're acting in solidarity with those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses the traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation near Houston, B.C.

Blockades were erected after the RCMP enforced a court injunction last week against Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who had been stopping construction of the pipeline, a key part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project.

Miller's offer comes after the Assembly of First Nations and Opposition politicians urged the Liberal government to take swifter and firmer action to defuse tensions over the pipeline.

Via Rail has cancelled service on its Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes until at least the end of the day on Friday because of the Mohawk blockade near Belleville, Ont.

Via has also said the blockade near New Hazelton means normal rail service is being interrupted between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Ian Boxall, vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said the rail blockades are affecting almost every commodity.

Boxall said dozens of ships in Vancouver are waiting to be loaded, while eight await shipments in Prince Rupert.

In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister said the Justice Department will seek an injunction to end a rail blockade west of Winnipeg and have it enforced within a few days.

Meanwhile, two hereditary chiefs from the Wet'suwet'en First Nation have launched a constitutional challenge of fossil-fuel projects.

The challenge calls on the Federal Court to declare that Canada is constitutionally obliged to meet international climate-change targets, which the chiefs contend would cancel approvals for the Coastal GasLink line.

Coastal GasLink says it has agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre route, but the hereditary chiefs in the Wet'suwet'en First Nation say they have title to a vast section of the land and never relinquished that by signing a treaty.

Without their consent, the project cannot be built, they say, and they've repeatedly gone to court to stop it — without success.

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