VICTORIA — Hundreds of protesters blocked the entrances to the British Columbia legislature on Feb. 11 as demonstrations in support of Indigenous hereditary chiefs who oppose a pipeline project continued to flare across the country.
Protesters, who have been camping outside the building since Feb. 7, hollered “Shame” as politicians tried to enter the building with help from security and others chanted “Shut down Canada” and “Stand up, fight back.”
Shaylynn Sampson, 20, said she and other demonstrators would remain outside the legislature until the province agreed to pressure the RCMP and a natural gas company to withdraw from Wet’suwet’en traditional territories in northern B.C.
“My ancestors have been doing this for hundreds of years. I’m willing to do this as long as it takes,” said Sampson, who has Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en heritage.
Demonstrations have sprung up across Canada since the RCMP began enforcing a court injunction last week against Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who have been blocking construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Houston.
The RCMP concluded major operations to enforce the injunction on Feb. 10 after arresting 21 people.
Coastal GasLink said in a statement it was disappointed that police enforcement was required to open a forest road leading to its work site but it will redouble efforts to engage with the hereditary chiefs to find a peaceful and long-term resolution.
It said construction would resume this week, marking a return to work for “many members of the Wet’suwet’en community” who are employed by the project.
Premier John Horgan’s New Democrat government was set to deliver its throne speech later Tuesday but the demonstration forced officials to cancel some of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the event.
An official in the Speaker’s office said members of the public attending the speech must have tickets and will be required to enter the building through a side door. A traditional military salute and honour guard that typically greets the lieutenant governor’s arrival was also cancelled.
Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said the protests will not disrupt the speech. Enough members of the New Democrat, Liberal and Green caucuses made it into the building to conduct the legislature’s daily business, he said.
“This is the people’s house. This is a place where protest takes place. It’s not the first time a protest has happened on this legislature and I know it won’t be the last time.”
Protests also threatened to affect the country’s rail network as Canadian National Railway Co. said blockades on its lines could lead to it closing “significant” parts of its network.
CN said more than 150 freight trains have been halted since Thursday evening due to blockades near New Hazelton, B.C., and Belleville, Ont., while Via Rail said 157 passenger trains have also been cancelled, affecting 24,500 travellers on routes between Montreal and Toronto, and Ottawa and Toronto.
Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau says he is working to find a solution and warned that blocking tracks is “dangerous and illegal.”
Sampson said the various groups of demonstrators were not all connected or in contact. But she said in Victoria, when she and others put the word out about a protest, the community shows up in droves to support them.
“I think this is a huge point in Indigenous history that’s happening right in front of us. I think lots of people … are recognizing that what happens to one Indigenous nation could happen to any Indigenous nation,” she said.
In Ottawa, Indigenous youth and supporters who began a sit-in just blocks from Parliament Hill on Monday said they’ve given the federal justice minister 24 hours to respond to their demands or they’ll consider reconciliation dead.
Sophia Sidarous said while they spoke to David Lametti by phone to make their case that the federal government must intervene in the ongoing B.C. protests, the minister’s assurances that he’d bring the matter up with the Liberal cabinet wasn’t good enough.
“We have the right to believe, and all Canadians have the right to believe, that the justice minister has obligations to justice. It’s pretty simple, right?” she asked. “There are injustices happening in Wet’suwet’en and we expect them to be addressed by the federal government.”
The group said they’ll end their occupation by Wednesday if Lametti doesn’t act.
But Gabrielle Fayant, another protester, said if they leave, that doesn’t mean they are giving up.
“There will be more mobilization in 24 hours.”
The 670-kilometre natural gas pipeline is part of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project in northern B.C.
All 20 elected band councils along the pipeline route, including the Wet’suwet’en council, have signed benefits agreements with Coastal GasLink. However, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs say the council established by the Indian Act only has authority over reserve lands.
The hereditary chiefs assert title to a vast 22,000-square-kilometre area because they have never signed a treaty ceding their traditional territories.
Horgan has said the pipeline is of vital economic and social importance to northern B.C. He said the courts have decided the pipeline can proceed and the rule of law must prevail.
— with files from Stephanie Levitz in Ottawa and Dirk Meissner in Victoria.News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2020