Trudeau Abandons Talks, Says Blockades ‘Must Now Come Down’

Theophilos Argitis

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged his government’s efforts to negotiate a solution to rail blockades across the country have failed and signaled he would be open to police intervention.

Efforts by his ministers to reach out have not been productive and he has “no choice” but to stop making overtures and call for the barricades to come down, Trudeau said at a press conference Friday in Ottawa.

“We cannot continue to watch Canadians suffer shortages and layoffs,” the prime minister told reporters, adding that the responsibility to enforce court orders lies with provincial police forces. “The barricades must now come down,” he said.

The comments represent a dramatic turn of events in the third week of blockades that have crippled the nation’s rail network, shutting down freight traffic in eastern Canada and bringing a halt to most intercity passenger service. As recently as yesterday, Trudeau’s government had emphasized the need to engage with protesters and indigenous groups in the hopes of a reaching a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Environmental and indigenous-rights activists have obstructed rail lines in several provinces, protesting the construction of TC Energy Corp.’s planned C$6.6 billion ($5 billion) Coastal GasLink project. The pipeline would ship natural gas to an LNG export facility under construction on the coast of British Columbia that is backed by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, PetroChina Co. and three other partners.

Nation to Nation

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are standing firm in their demands that the RCMP depart from their traditional lands, and that all construction on the Coastal GasLink project stop before “nation to nation” dialog can begin between the indigenous group and the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

The territory “was never ceded or surrendered, and as such, Canada’s actions amount to an illegal occupation,” Hereditary Chief Woos told reporters in Tyendinaga, Ontario, where he and other leaders met with Mohawk supporters. He said the chiefs have put a “path of peace forward, in order that nation to nation discussion with Canada and B.C. may occur freely and without duress.”

Trains would be allowed to pass through the territory once the RCMP leave, Woos said. Once that happens, the chiefs would be open to meeting with Trudeau or his ministers, Woos said.

The Coastal GasLink project has broad support from some indigenous communities along the route, and the Wet’suwet’en themselves are divided about it.

While Canadian National Railway Co. has been successful in obtaining injunctions to dismantle blockades, it still had to cancel 400 trains last week and shut down its eastern Canada operations.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault estimated that the rail blockades are causing losses of about C$100 million ($76 million) a day for his province. CN and some manufacturers have started temporary layoffs, while the Montreal port is facing some congestion, he said. Shipments of everything from agricultural products to fertilizer and oil have also been disrupted across the country. Some economists have estimated the disruptions will reduce annualized growth in the first quarter by as much as 0.3 percentage points.

The disruptions have gone on too long and are beginning to have widespread economic impacts, Trudeau said.

“The onus has shifted to indigenous leadership.” he said, adding the military won’t get involved and he can’t order police to remove the barriers. Friday’s statement effectively represents a green light for the police to advance on the barricades, should they choose to do so.

(Updates with comments from hereditary chiefs from sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Theophilos Argitis in Ottawa at targitis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Derek Decloet at ddecloet@bloomberg.net, Chris Fournier, Stephen Wicary

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