Feds, B.C. hope meetings with Indigenous leaders will end rail blockades

Federal and British Columbia officials are tentatively set to meet with Indigenous leaders in the hope of ending anti-pipeline rail blockades that have stalled travellers and choked Canada’s economy.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller sent a letter to three leaders about a protest near Belleville, Ont., 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 posted publicly on Thursday.

“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.”

One of the three recipients, Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Donald Maracle, said he expects the meeting will take place but he can’t comment on Miller’s request to end the blockade because the protest wasn’t initiated by its council.

“We’re happy that he’s agreed to come,” Maracle said. “We need to allow the discussion to take place.”

B.C. Premier John Horgan also released a letter Thursday addressed to Simogyet Spookw, who also goes by Norman Stephens, a chief of the Gitxsan Nation.

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 over a rail blockade in New Hazelton, B.C.

“I confirm our government’s willingness to participate in such a meeting,” Horgan said. “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.”

Protesters across Canada have said they’re acting in solidarity with those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses Wet’suwet’en traditional territory 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.

B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said he will represent the provincial government at the meeting with Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en chiefs.

“The discussion with Chief Stephens is that, with an agreement to this meeting, there will be a stand down on the blockade,” he said. “That’s heartening.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also responded to a letter from Stephens and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett will attend the meeting in B.C., the prime minister’s office said.

Stephens did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The proposed meetings come 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 Ontario blockade.

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

In Manitoba, protesters dismantled a blockade on an east-west Canadian National Railway line but insisted that there would be more action to come.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister had promised to seek a court injunction against the blockade, but said it wasn’t necessary because CN obtained its own injunction that was served Wednesday.

Pallister hinted the province may seek injunctions if any new blockades spring up.

“If activities are illegal, they need to be shut down because there are consequences,” he said.

Pallister also said he will ask fellow premiers for a conference call to reiterate a demand that the federal government simplify the approval process for resource projects.

Ian Boxall, vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said the 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.

Protesters in B.C. continued to demonstrate against the provincial government on Thursday, days after hundreds of people blocked the entrances to the B.C. legislature and chanted “Shame.”

Dozens of people occupied the office of Attorney General David Eby, demanding that RCMP and Coastal GasLink withdraw from Wet’suwet’en territory.

The head of the province’s civil service also sent an email to employees warning that another protest may occur on Friday.

Don Wright wrote that staff may have heard protesters are planning to “shut down” as many ministries as possible, but the civil service has developed a flexible plan to maintain some service to the public.

“Please ensure that your safety and that of your colleagues is your first priority,” he said. ”We will not ask public servants to put themselves into any situation where they do not feel safe.”

Meanwhile, two hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en 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 say they have title to a vast section of the land and never relinquished that by signing a treaty.

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