Chiefs head to court over pipeline as supporters take to streets in protest
Trudeau called on all sides to resolve their differences but insisted that protesters fighting a B.C. Coastal GasLink project must honour Canadian law
Two hereditary chiefs from a British Columbia First Nation at the heart of a wave of national protests launched a constitutional challenge of fossil fuel projects on Feb. 12 as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for demonstrators to observe the rule of law.
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 a natural gas pipeline that runs through traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.
“If Canada is allowed to continue approving infrastructure for fracked gas projects on a 40-year timeline, our territories will become a wasteland before the project licenses expire,” Chief Lho’imggin, who also goes by Alphonse Gagnon, said in a statement.
“As house chief it is my responsibility to protect our house territory. We’re asking the court to get Canada to act before it is too late.”
The challenge came as protesters continued to blockade major ports and rail lines in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, scuttling freight and passenger service and prompting growing calls for federal government intervention.
Speaking in Senegal on Feb. 12, Trudeau called on all sides to resolve their differences but insisted that protesters must honour Canadian law.
“We recognize the important democratic right — and will always defend it — of peaceful protest,” Trudeau said during a news conference with Senegal President Macky Sall. “But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.”
Trudeau’s remarks, echoed by Canada’s transportation and finance ministers throughout the day, drew scorn from Indigenous protesters backing the Wet’suet’en hereditary chiefs.
Herb Varley, who helped organize a blockade at the Port of Vancouver, accused Trudeau of “mindlessly parroting” the term rule of law, which he said is empty rhetoric.
If his elders had followed the rule of law, he said their language would have died out.
“If my Nisga’a grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties and uncles had followed the rule of law, we wouldn’t know we were Nisga’a,” he said outside the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where he and other protesters announced they were challenging an injunction served against them over the weekend.
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.
The blockades were erected after the RCMP enforced a court injunction last week against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters, who had been blocking construction of the pipeline, a key part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project.
Another group of supporters took to the streets in Ottawa on Feb. 12, moving from the office of the federal justice minister into a major intersection near the Supreme Court of Canada.
The crowd of nearly 75 people caused a logjam that backed traffic up for blocks and provoked one angry driver to exit his car and confront the protesters. But the delay was cleared in less than an hour as protesters dispersed, vowing to reconvene at Canada’s highest court building later in the day.
Similar protests in Vancouver tied up traffic at different points of the city throughout the day.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said anti-pipeline demonstrators who prevented people from entering the legislature for his government’s throne speech on Feb. 11 need to respect the rights of others.
“Peaceful demonstration is fundamental to our success as a democracy,” he told a news conference in Victoria Feb. 12. “But to have a group of people say to others you are illegitimate, you are not allowed in here, you are somehow a sellout to the values of Canadians is just plain wrong, and I want to underline that.”
The economic impact of the demonstrations has started to crystallize: Canadian National Railway Co. warned Feb. 11 that it would have to close “significant” parts of its network unless blockades on its rail lines were removed.
More than 150 freight trains have been idled since the blockades were set up last Thursday in British Columbia and Ontario.
Passenger rail services have also been affected in Ontario, Quebec and B.C., with Via Rail cancelling service on its Montreal-Toronto and Ottawa-Toronto routes until at least the end of the day on Feb. 13 because of a blockade near Belleville, Ont.
Chief executive JJ Ruest said the CN network gives the company limited parking space for its trains, which means traffic is backed up from Halifax to Windsor, Ont., and in parts of B.C. approaching Prince Rupert.
Via Rail said 157 passenger trains have been cancelled as of Feb. 11, affecting 24,500 travellers.
In addition to the service cancellations in Ontario, Via said a blockade near New Hazelton, B.C., also means normal rail service is being interrupted between Prince Rupert and Prince George.
The Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions said rail disruptions of just a few days will cause economic loss for farmers, who have faced difficult harvest conditions.
“With blockades happening in multiple Canadian locations, farmers will feel immediate effects,” said Dave Bishop, chair of Alberta Barley.
“Delays will result in farmers being unable to deliver their grain, meaning they can’t be paid at least until service resumes. We are still recovering from the harvest from hell and need reliable grain movement in order to get back on track.”