A long-running dispute over a pipeline in British Columbia has turned into a national political storm, caused layoffs in the rail industry and raised broader economic fears.
After a two-week period that elevated the national political temperature, disrupted much of rail service in eastern Canada and led to layoffs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for an end to the blockades in support of hereditary Wet’suwet’en chiefs in British Columbia.
It started as a solidarity protest along a key railway line in Ontario by a small group of Mohawks. But it ballooned into a series of nationwide disruptions of various sizes and duration. Traffic was snarled in cities, ports were cut off and British Columbia’s legislature was effectively closed off. While some of the other protests, like the first one, mainly involved other Indigenous groups, many have included non-Indigenous individuals who appeared to be acting more in opposition to energy pipelines than in sympathy with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ land claims.
One factor in Mr. Trudeau not calling for an end to the barricades earlier, as I wrote earlier this week, was the lingering memories of standoffs between police and Indigenous people in Oka, Quebec, and Ipperwash, Ontario, during the 1990s.
In Oka, an early police move led to an officer’s death and escalated the situation to the point where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the army moved in. When the Ontario Provincial Police, acting on what was ultimately determined to be unfounded rumors, stormed protesters at Ipperwash, one of them was killed. In both cases, it was never determined who was responsible.
The current blockades have largely remained peaceful, even when a counter protest group tore down barriers on train tracks in Edmonton. But this situation involves a large array of people, agendas and issues that span much of the country. So here’s a brief guide to the players and the issues:
What’s at the Heart of This?
Fracking, along with persistently low natural gas prices. New techniques like hydraulic fracturing will soon make the United States, the main user of Canadian natural gas, self-sufficient in the fuel.
The answer proposed by both Liberal and New Democratic governments in British Columbia is a plant that will liquefy natural gas near Kitimat, where tankers bound for Asia will be filled. 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 Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have been trying to block construction of a pipeline linking B.C.’s gas fields to that plant. Known as Coastal GasLink, it’s a project of TC Energy, the pipeline company known until recently as TransCanada.
Because the pipeline is entirely within the province’s boundaries, the federal government had no significant role in its approval.
Do All Wet’suwet’en People Oppose the Pipeline?
Not at all. Like any group in Canada, there’s not unanimity among the members of the Wet’suwet’en on this or most other major issues. But figuring out what the consensus is within their community is a difficult task in part because the First Nation has two different leaderships.
The 20 band council along the route all support the pipeline project, which is committed to hiring Indigenous people and to spending millions of dollars with Indigenous businesses.
But the band councils, which are elected, were put in place by the federal government in 19th century. So many people within the traditional community view their authority as being limited to narrowly defined reserve lands and recognize the hereditary chiefs as the authority over traditional lands.
In a case brought by…