Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer appeared in the halls of Canada’s seat of power Friday, walked up to the microphone and cameras waiting for him to address a national audience and told those who have been standing in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en to “check their privilege.”
The Gidimt’en camp of members of the Wet'suwet'en Nation told National Observer that kind of statement is "racist and absurd" when many Indigenous communities have been discriminated against or lack access to basic services.
Scheer was responding to the news this week that blockades of key rail lines — in protest of the RCMP’s arrests of Wet’suwet’en members in British Columbia in order to clear the route for a gas pipeline — are putting pressure on some industry employees.
He seized on numbers cited by transportation-sector union Teamsters Canada that “up to 6,000 workers” could be out of work as a result of a decision by Canadian National (CN) Railway to shut down eastern operations, as well as Via Rail’s cancellation of passenger-train service across the country. More than 400 trains have been cancelled in the past week, CN has said.
“These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade, but they need to check their privilege,” Scheer told reporters, who had gathered outside the House of Commons chamber on Parliament Hill in order to broadcast his views.
“They need to check their privilege, and let people whose jobs depend on the railway system, small businesses and farmers do their jobs.”
Asked what she thought of Scheer's statement, Molly Wickham, spokeswoman for the Gidimt’en camp of Wet'suwet'en Nation members, said the Tory leader's words made little sense.
"All of Canada is subsidized by Indigenous people. All Canadian industries and transportation infrastructure rely on the theft of Indigenous land for their existence," she said. "Calling Indigenous land defenders 'privileged' when so many of our communities are denied basic human rights and services is racist and absurd."
Two examples of Indigenous human-rights issues include the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision that Ottawa was "willful and reckless" with First Nations children who suffered racial discrimination and unnecessary separation from their families, as well as the fact that there are still 60 long-term drinking-water advisories on reserves despite the United Nations recognizing clean drinking water as a human right.
Miller to meet with Mohawk nations: Garneau
Protests have erupted in multiple provinces after the RCMP moved on Wet’suwet’en territory, arrested matriarchs, sawed apart gates and extinguished sacred fires.
"Calling Indigenous land defenders 'privileged' when so many of our communities are denied basic human rights and services is racist and absurd," Gidimt’en camp of Wet'suwet'en tells Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
A blockade in Manitoba has ended, but National Observer reported another in British Columbia has sprung up near Vancouver, just as a third near New Hazleton, B.C., appeared to be winding down. Meanwhile, near Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory east of Belleville, Ont., negotiations have been ongoing with the Ontario Provincial Police over a fourth rail blockade.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who spoke to media in downtown Toronto on the sidelines of an annual meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts Friday morning, said “the path to resolution of this issue is through dialogue and seeking consensus.”
Garneau confirmed Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller would be meeting “very shortly” with Mohawk representatives to discuss the issue. He insisted the government has been “working every day, ever since this happened,” to engage with CN, Via and Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway, as well as provincial counterparts.
“We’ve been actively engaged on trying to find the best solution, as quickly as possible,” he said.
Late on Friday, Mohawk representatives announced that Miller would be meeting Saturday morning with them at the rail crossing in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, to address issues and “polish the Silver Covenant Chain,” which represents the original agreements between Mohawks and the Crown.
"Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters alike are welcome to travel to Tyendinaga tomorrow to witness the historic event," they said in a statement.
TMC Statement RE: RCMP Actions, February 11th, 2020 pic.twitter.com/DEd61hJjyl— Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte (@MBQTMT) February 11, 2020
The “vast majority” of goods used by Canadians and bought in stores “travel by rail,” Garneau said. The disruption also affects people who rely on passenger rail service to work or travel to see family, he added. “The impact of this disruption affects each and every Canadian.”
Garneau also said “freedom of expression and peaceful protest” are among Canadians’ most fundamental rights, and should be respected, but he was “deeply concerned” that the blockades were preventing the operations of railways.
“There is a risk of seeing this solely as being about a negative impact on the profitability of large companies,” Garneau said. “But it is about people's jobs and livelihoods, and about the transport of key supplies like food, propane, heating oil and chemicals for water treatment, agricultural products for export and so many other products.”
'Law enforcement should enforce the law': Scheer
Scheer also acknowledged that all citizens “have the right to demonstrate peacefully and to express themselves freely,” but said that doesn’t mean they have a “right to paralyze our rail network and our ports.”
He tried to portray the situation as one of “a few activists” being able to shut down “an entire aspect of our economy,” and claimed that those manning the blockades are hurting their own cause. “They’re doing it wrong,” he said.
“For many of these anti-energy activists, this is just a warm-up act,” said Scheer. “This is just a warm-up act for fights like TMX (the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project) and Teck Frontier (a proposed $20-billion oilsands mine). In the end, their goal is the shutdown of our entire energy sector.”
The outgoing Tory leader spent a large portion of his appearance in front of media calling on the RCMP to “enforce the law.”
Pressed repeatedly to explain what specific actions he meant by that, Scheer would not elaborate.
“The RCMP act is clear: the minister of public safety has the ultimate authority over Canada’s national police force, and has the power to direct the RCMP to enforce the law,” he said.
“Pick up the phone, call (Public Safety) Minister (Bill) Blair, and tell him to put an end to this situation," he said, aiming his remarks at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Asked if he meant the RCMP should breach areas where it does not have jurisdiction, Scheer said he didn’t mean that.
“I’m calling on the prime minister to act as prime minister, to make sure that he uses all the tools in his toolkit to enforce the law. Where it’s RCMP jurisdiction, they should intervene,” he said.
“Law enforcement should enforce the law.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 14, 2020 at 6:01 p.m. Eastern to include a statement from Mohawk representatives.