A longstanding dispute over a pipeline in British Columbia has turned into a national political storm, layoffs in the rail industry, and more general economic concerns.
After a two-week period that raised national political temperatures, disrupted much of rail traffic in eastern Canada, and resulted in layoffs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an end to the blockades in support of hereditary Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en bosses in British Columbia.
It started as a solidarity protest by a small group of Mohawks along an important railroad in Ontario. But there were a number of nationwide disruptions of various sizes and durations. Urban traffic was confused, ports were cut off and British Columbia lawmakers were effectively closed. While some of the other protests, such as the first, mainly concerned other indigenous groups, included many non-indigenous individuals who appeared to be trading against energy pipelines rather than the land of the hereditary chiefs of the Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en.
One factor in the fact that Mr. Trudeau did not earlier call for an end to the barricades, as I wrote earlier this week, was the persistent memories of police and indigenous clashes in Oka, Quebec, and Ipperwash, Ontario, in the 1990s.
[Read: As Canada's frustration with the rail blockade increases, Trudeau is bothered.]
An early police operation in Oka resulted in the death of an officer and escalated to the point where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Army moved in. When the Ontario provincial police protested ultimately unsubstantiated rumors, they stormed protesters. One of them was killed in Ipperwash. In both cases, it was never determined who was responsible.
The current blockades have remained largely peaceful, even when a counter-protest group tore down barriers on railroad tracks in Edmonton. However, this situation affects a large number of people, agendas and issues that affect a large part of the country. Here's a quick guide to the players and topics:
What is the heart of it?
Fracking, persistently low gas prices. New techniques such as hydraulic crushing will soon make the United States, the main user of Canadian natural gas, self-sufficient in fuel.
The answer that has been proposed by both the liberal and new democratic governments in British Columbia is a facility that will liquefy natural gas near Kitimat, where tankers will be filled to Asia. The plant is being built by a group led by Shell and Petronas, the latter being a Malaysian oil and gas company.
For more than a year, the hereditary bosses of Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en have been trying to block the construction of a pipeline that blocks B.C. connects with this system. Known as Coastal GasLink, it is a project by TC Energy, the pipeline company that until recently was known as TransCanada.
Since the pipeline is entirely within the province's borders, the federal government did not play a major role in its approval.
Are all Wet’suwet’en people against the pipeline?
Not at all. As with any group in Canada, there is no unanimity among Wet’suwet’en members on this or most other important issues. But figuring out what consensus is in their community is sometimes a difficult task because the First Nation has two different guides.
The 20-band council along the route supports everyone in the pipeline project dedicated to hiring indigenous peoples and spending millions of dollars on indigenous businesses.
However, the elected councilors were set up by the federal government in the 19th century. So many people in the traditional community see their authority as limited to limited reserves and recognize the hereditary chiefs as an authority over traditional countries.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that the wet’suwet’s had an “Aboriginal title” in a decision by the hereditary chiefs for a wide area that they defined as a traditional country.
Despite their title, hereditary chiefs do not automatically take up an office or hold it indefinitely. Last year, three of them, all women in the pipeline, were stripped of their titles and replaced by men – a move that they feel is inconsistent with Wet & # 39; suwet's traditional law. Lawyers for the current hereditary chiefs have argued in court that the women have received funding from the provincial government to help the pipeline.
Who is blocking the trains?
The biggest effect is due to an ongoing blockade, which is actually a makeshift roadside camp in Tyendinaga, Ontario. The Canadian National Railway passes near land that members of the Mohawk First Nation say were granted to their ancestors when they came to Canada with the British in the American colonies after the Revolutionary War.
The camp appeared shortly after the mounties moved in to enforce an injunction against Wet’suwet’en members who blocked the construction of Coastal GasLink. When I visited the camp in the first week, everyone I spoke to said it had been set up spontaneously and should show solidarity with the Wet & # 39; suwet & # 39; en opponents and their land claims as well as Mohawk- Draw attention to land disputes. The Mohawks there have a long history of disrupting the railroad line in protests.
The camp is not approved by the local band council line and is relatively small. Nobody appears as the official spokesman, although three or four of its members seemed to have informal leadership roles.
Everyone I spoke to said they were Mohawk. Although some of them lived in other First Nations in Ontario and Quebec and at least one lived in Ottawa.
Is there an obvious solution?
Many of the Mohawks in Tyendinaga have said that they will have the trains rolling again when the Mounties leave Wet & # 39; suwet. The police have offered to move their temporary department along the pipeline to a nearby town if the road remains open. No one in the indigenous community had said until Friday afternoon whether this would satisfy them.
Legal experts agree that in this case neither the federal nor the provincial government have the authority to order the police to move in, remove the blockades and arrest the demonstrators. Apart from the potential for violence, there is little guarantee that other blockages will not immediately replace them elsewhere.
Finally, it will most likely be a lengthy affair to clear up the hereditary chiefs' complaints about Coastal GasLink. One that will last much longer than the nation will tolerate the disruption and the economic cost of the blockades.
The novels by Charles Portis, who died this week, often contained stories of outsiders in unusual circumstances. And his obituary shows that his own life had a big and unlikely turn. Some disclosures: The article states that his books have a "cult following". I am among the cultists.
Ian Austen is from Windsor, Ontario. He was trained in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been reporting on Canada for the New York Times for 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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