Rail blockades continue in Canada despite calls for dialogue

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by Christopher Guly

OTTAWA, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- After nearly two weeks of rail blockades against a proposed Canadian natural gas pipeline on Wet'suwet'en First Nation land, a glimmer of hope emerged when Indigenous leaders called for a meeting of federal and provincial governments, First Nation officials and hereditary chiefs.

The elected First Nation officials support the project while hereditary chiefs oppose it to resolve the impasse that is hobbling the country's economy.

"Get this dialogue started in a constructive way," said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a national advocacy organization that represents more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities and in cities and towns across Canada.

Serge Otsi Simon, grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake - a First Nations community located in the Canadian province of Quebec that was the site of a violent protest over the proposed expansion of a municipal golf course 30 years ago that resulted in the death of a police officer - pressed for an end to the current blockades as a "show of good faith."

It would not demonstrate "surrender," but display "compassion," he said. "I'm simply pleading with the protestors - have you made your point yet? Has the government and industry understood? I think they did."

Indeed they have, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spotlighted when he and other party leaders addressed the blockades situation in the House of Commons Tuesday morning. "On all sides, people are upset and frustrated. I get it," Trudeau said. "It's understandable because this is about things that matter - rights and livelihoods, the rule of law and our democracy."

As people's patience is running short, now it is the time to find a solution, the prime minister said. "Because what is the alternative? Do we want to become a country of irreconcilable differences where people talk but refuse to listen? Where politicians are ordering police to arrest people? A country where people think they can tamper with rail lines and endanger lives? This is simply unacceptable."

But the clock is ticking to find a resolution. On Tuesday, 34 Canadian business and industry leaders sent Trudeau a letter in which they called on his government "to bring an end to the ongoing disruptions and restore normal services without further delay."

"In addition to denying access to public transportation for tens of thousands of Canadians, these illegal blockades inflict serious damage on the economy, leaving countless middle-class jobs at risk, many of them in industries that must get their goods, parts, and ingredients to and from market by rail," said the letter, which was also sent to Canada's opposition leaders.

"In addition to disrupting domestic and global supply chains, the blockades undermine Canada's reputation as a dependable partner in international trade. They also threaten public safety by preventing the distribution of essential products like chlorine for water treatment and propane for heating homes, seniors' facilities and farms," the letter added.

"The damage inflicted on the Canadian economy and on the welfare of all our citizens mounts with each hour that these illegal disruptions are allowed to continue. Each additional day rail lines are disrupted requires three to four days for supply chains to recover. This is why it is imperative that the government act now to get the Canadian economy moving again," warned the letter.

At a Tuesday news conference in Toronto, the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME), which represents 2,500 manufacturers, called on the federal government to restore rail service. Last week, Canadian National (CN) Railway began ceasing operations in eastern Canada, while the country's national passenger-rail service, Via Rail, completely shut down.

For every day the blockades continue, about 321 million U.S. dollars worth of manufactured goods that are usually carried by rail are sitting idle, said CME president Dennis Darby.

Manufactured goods account for nearly half of all rail car loadings in Canada, according to the association, which forecasts that for every day that rail service is blocked in Canada, it will take three to four days to make up for the lost time. Job losses are also possible, the CME added. At CN, they have already occurred, when Canada's largest cargo rail network announced that about 450 workers would be laid off.

On Wednesday, Via Rail announced that nearly 1,000 employees would face temporary layoffs.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which represents about 200,000 Canadian farm families, said in a statement on Tuesday that the rail blockades come at the tail-end of what has been an incredibly difficult 12 months for Canadian farmers.

"If rail service continues to blockaded, this will result in propane shortages in eastern Canada," said the federation. "Without access to propane shipments, there is a very real risk of animal-welfare issues, as many farmers use propane to heat their bans in the winter months."

However, finding a common ground to stop the blockades sparked over a dispute involving Indigenous land rights and a pipeline project in the west coast province of British Columbia remains elusive.

In the Commons on Tuesday, Canadian Conservative Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer dismissed Trudeau's speech in Parliament as "the weakest response to a national crisis in Canadian history," which failed to include "a clear denunciation that the actions of these radical activists are illegal, and some kind of an action plan that would put an end to the illegal blockades and get our economy back on track."

"Will our country be one of the rule of law or will our country be one of the rule of the mob?" asked Scheer rhetorically.

In response, the prime minister shut Scheer out of a meeting with opposition leaders to find a "peaceful resolution of the situation" because the Conservative leader "disqualified himself from constructive discussions with his unacceptable speech" in Parliament, Trudeau said.

Simon, the Mohawk leader, faced his own blowback after he was locked out of his office by members of his community angry over his plea for peace.

One possible path to peace is an unlikely one.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, who served as Trudeau's - and Canada's first Indigenous - attorney general before she was shuffled out of the job last year over a disagreement with him on handling the SNC-Lavalin criminal case, has offered to serve as a government mediator.

Before she was elected to Parliament in 2015, Wilson-Raybould had served as a regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations where she represented the Wet'suwet'en people. Enditem

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