Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.
We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.No Thanks Subscribe
Rail-line blockades threatening Canada's economy are, in some ways, similar to the economic obstacles long responsible for keeping Manitoba's Indigenous people on the margins of society.
That was the message delivered Friday by the leader of Manitoba's Southern Chiefs' Organization.
"We have millions of acres that are owed to First Nations in Manitoba, millions of acres," Grand Chief Jerry Daniels told a press conference. "That acreage represents wealth, it represents sustainability of our environment, and we are the true owners of these lands."
Daniels said the relationship between First Nations and government is based on sharing those lands, and called on the provincial and federal governments to "recognize that their actions over the last 150 years have been detrimental to the lives of Indigenous people."
Indigenous people and supporters of the Wet'suwet'en Nation's hereditary leaders in British Columbia have stopped rail traffic in Eastern Canada and temporarily blocked roads, bridges and ports across the country in opposition of a pipeline project through their traditional territory in B.C.
Protests and blockades across the country followed an attempt by the RCMP to enforce an injunction earlier this month to end a protest closing access to a Coastal GasLink pipeline work site. More than two dozen protesters — including one hereditary chief — were arrested.
The situation, which has resulted in 1,000 temporary layoffs at Via Rail, has the federal government scrambling to find a peaceful resolution.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally called for the blockades to end, saying conversations with Indigenous leaders have been unsuccessful.
"Let us be clear: all Canadians are paying the price. Some people can't get to work, others have lost their jobs," Trudeau said in Ottawa. "Essential goods… cannot get where they need to go."
First Nations peoples have been "relegated to poverty and relegated to the margins of society" by government policies, Daniels said.
"Until Canadians... and Manitobans understand that, we're (going) to continue to see problems like we're seeing today with the Wet'suwet'en," he said.
Terry Nelson, a council member and former chief of Roseau River First Nation, highlighted the potential economic harm of the rail blockades to Canada's export-dependent economy.
"We don't want to destroy the economy of Canada, I want to be very clear on that. We want to work together," Nelson said.
"But if anybody thinks that they're going to use guns, as they have... we're not afraid of your guns. If there is going to be blockades, it'll be for months and months and months, until Canada comes to the understanding that we're not going to be in the poverty line."
Daniels said the SCO, a group of 34 First Nations in southern Manitoba, supports the rights of Indigenous governments to make their own decisions. The Wet'suwet'en form of traditional hereditary governance predates the Indian Act and Canadian law, he said.
"And it's for them to decide on how they want to make decisions. If the people of the Wet'suwet'en didn't support the hereditary chiefs, there wouldn't be hereditary chiefs... It's a real, tangible institution that exists here today, and you have to be able to work with that."
Daniels said SCO is planning to blockade four Manitoba roads for two hours on March 20, including the Emerson border crossing to North Dakota, Highway 1 at both the Ontario and Saskatchewan borders and an unspecified northern road.
"We're here to remind Manitobans and Canadians that we don't want to be out on the roads doing this," he said. "We would rather be working with you as partners."
The upcoming Manitoba road blockades were planned before the current blockades related to the B.C. pipeline dispute, he said.
— With files from Canadian Press
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.