In Depth

Why protesters are bringing Canada to a halt

Demonstrators are crippling road, rail and sea links in solidarity with First Nations leaders attempting to block a gas pipeline

Across Canada, protesters opposed to the construction of a gas pipeline in British Columbia have been disrupting travel and trade since the beginning of February - but a new wave this week has swelled what is rapidly becoming a major political crisis for the government in Ottawa.

Demonstrations in support of aboriginal leaders opposed to construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline - which will cost CA$6.2bn (£36bn) - have blockaded ports, motorways and railways across Canada. Their official hashtag: #ShutDownCanada.

What is going on?

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en, a Canadian First Nations people, have been encamped at the proposed gas pipeline’s building site in the Western district of British Columbia for over a year.

They have been blocking the construction of the 416-mile pipeline in defiance of the district government and the elected Wet’suwet’en council, both of whom have consented to the project. The company behind the pipeline has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to First Nations businesses, but the Wet’suwet’en leadership says it will irreversibly damage their ancestral lands.

Three weeks ago, police, acting on a warrant, tried to move their encampment by force, and in response environmentalists and Indigenous rights proponents across the country began protesting in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en leadership.

Last week, climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted her support for the protests:

Yesterday, fires were ignited along railway tracks in Ontario and had to be put out by police. Commutes have been disrupted in Montreal and Toronto, motorways have been blocked in Manitoba, and Vancouver’s ports have been blockaded. Injunctions to clear the protests are being defied or evaded by demonstrators.

The disruption to the country’s rail network has been particularly acute, with Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd explaining the trouble faced because of a single blockade at Kahnawake, just south of Montreal - a key line to the United States.

“The blockade at Kahnawake has severed vital rail connections and severely impacted CP’s operations, customers and the broader economy. Outside of this blockade other ‘copycat’ blockades, including some not involving Indigenous peoples, have developed,” the company told Canadian publication The Globe and Mail.

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“The protest has affected rail travel for at least 103,000 Canadians and prompted temporary layoffs,” reported The New York Times on Tuesday. “The government-owned Via Rail Canada, which mostly runs on Canadian National’s tracks, at one point shut down all passenger trains in the country and temporarily laid off 1,000 employees.”

The Los Angeles Times calls the crisis “a classic imbroglio in a country that can be preoccupied with the ability to move people and products from place to place during persistently cold and snowy winters”.

The newspaper adds: “It involves questions about who rightly owns the vast continental expanse of the country, and even the legitimacy of Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”

The challenge for Trudeau

The disruption has not only had a major effect on the Canadian economy, but has also illuminated a social division between those who prioritise reconciliation with aboriginal people, and those who do not.

This division is a particularly hard one for Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to straddle, as he struggles to reconcile his support for environmental issues and the country’s indigenous population - key tenets of his brand - with his duties as a steward of the nation’s economy.

On Tuesday, an Ipsos poll concluded that 63% of Canadians supported the ongoing police efforts to end the protests - and increasingly, Trudeau, exasperated by the illegality and under pressure from business, is moving to their side.

“Here’s the reality: Every attempt at dialogue has been made,” he said. “The discussions have not been productive. We can’t have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table. For this reason, we have no choice but to stop making the same overtures. Of course, we will never close the door on dialogue, and our hand remains extended should someone want to reach for it.”

Nevertheless, caught between two promises - to fight for indigenous rights on the one hand and uphold the law and the economy on the other - Trudeau has vacillated. Add to that the fact that the central government has devolved a lot of power to the provinces in Canada, further curtailing his scope for action, this is a crisis for Trudeau’s leadership.

It has been, said Andrew Scheer, the Conservative opposition leader Trudeau defeated in October’s general election last year, “the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history”.

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