What Has the Belleville Blockade Accomplished?

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One of the protesters at the blockade of CN tracks near Belleville told a reporter that the reason for their actions was simple: to get people’s attention about the Wet’sewt’en protest in B.C. and ensure their concerns were talked about in coffee shops. Presumably this was shorthand for saying they wanted ordinary Canadians to learn more about the issues and then hopefully put pressure on elected politicians.

On that basis the Belleville blockade and other sympathy protests across the country have been a master stroke. Although no significant polling data has yet emerged, widespread media coverage and anecdotal evidence suggest the indigenous protesters have indeed captured the attention of most Canadians. But with what result?

Certainly a number of facts have emerged from the ongoing protests in Belleville and elsewhere, facts of which most Canadians were previously unaware. The question is whether these are the matters that the indigenous protesters hoped would be discussed by their fellow citizens over a morning coffee.

First and foremost, many Canadians now know the difference between elected band councils and hereditary chiefs. Many also know there are major disagreements between these two groups of indigenous leaders, and especially  within the badly divided Wet’suwet’en nation in B.C., where the actions of a small minority have captured media attention and provided the impetus for the various sympathy protests elsewhere. Internal divisions among indigenous bands are now also on public display with the Tyendenaga Mohawks near Belleville. Neither the leader of the elected band council nor the chief of that band are supporting the blockade, as the small but determined group of protesters readily admits.        

At the same time, ordinary Canadians know that more than 50,000 of their fellow citizens already have had their travel plans disrupted as the only passenger trains in the country, operated by Via Rail, have been shut down for a week in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. Although not yet as obvious, the negative consequences of the disruption to freight rail service in the manufacturing heartland of the country, and at major ports, will soon be seen across the country and the continent. From shortages of chlorine for municipal water systems, to propane for farmers, food supplies for grocery stores and restaurants and lumber and metal for construction, the costs of the blockades will potentially be devastating to the economy, and especially to low income Canadians whose jobs will be lost.

Perhaps most importantly, the widely-reported statements of several leaders of the various protest groups have made it clear that negotiation and compromise are unlikely to provide the way forward. The Wet’sewt’en hereditary chiefs leading the protest in B.C., for example, have made it clear that only the total abandonment of the Coastal Gaslink project will satisfy them, even though it has been approved by all 20 indigenous bands in its path including their own elected band council, and repeatedly given a green light by court decisions after extensive government and industry consultation with them.

There are many valid concerns which indigenous leadership can raise, either regarding pipelines and environmental issues or unresolved territorial claims. Many ordinary Canadians are sympathetic to those concerns. And Canadians have historically been prepared to tolerate a significant level of civil disobedience, as the recent Idle no More and Quebec Pots and Pans protests demonstrated. But the right to disagree should not be confused with the right to a veto, or to ignore the rule of law. And meaningful negotiations can only take place among spokespersons with recognized authority. If anything, the Belleville protest has served to heighten Canadians’ awareness of the significant lack of consensus among and within indigenous communities concerning both the issues and the legitimacy of their leadership. Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould admitted in a recent article that indigenous peoples must share the blame with governments for the slow rate of progress on these issues and their failure to create alternative governance structures to the existing system which some indigenous communities view as a legacy of colonialism and reject[i].

Sadly, many Canadians who until now have been inclined to view the Liberal government’s reconciliation agenda favourably may well place the blame for the current debacle squarely on the shoulders of indigenous leadership. Many more may conclude that reconciliation is impossible and urge politicians to enforce the rule of law, regardless of that agenda. Presumably this was not the message the protesters hoped to convey.     

[1] Jody Wilson-Raybould. “Who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en people? Making sense of the Coastal GasLink conflict”. Globe and Mail. January 24, 2020.