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Amid national protests opposing the construction of a pipeline on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory in B.C., federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was in Winnipeg Monday on a day honouring one of the most famous defenders of Métis land rights in Canadian history.

Singh’s visit came on Louis Riel Day, a provincial holiday commemorating the Métis leader executed in 1885 due in part to his opposition to Canadian encroachment on Métis lands.

"There’s a lot we need to learn from (Riel)," said Singh, donning a ceinture fléchée and flanked by Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who has put forth a bill calling for Riel’s recognition as the province’s first premier.

"People are really frustrated, and rightly so," he continued. "If you look across Canada, First Nations, Métis and Inuit (people) are frustrated with inaction at the federal level of government and the provincial level of government."

The most recent frustration has stemmed from the situation in northern B.C., where the impending construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory and the RCMP’s policing of opposition blockades has sparked a national discussion on land rights.

A media scrum with Singh and Kinew quickly pointed to parallels between the land defence taking place in B.C., and the one mounted by Riel and the Métis National Committee 150 years earlier.

After the Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to sell off land including Rupert’s Land to the newly formed Dominion of Canada in 1869, the committee was spurred into existence, and that year, Riel and other members blocked federal land surveyors from accessing the land.

Later, a road blockade prevented the Dominion-appointed lieutenant-governor from entering the Red River settlement, the committee seized Upper Fort Garry, and soon established itself as the provisional government of the Red River Settlement.

That series of events has led to Riel’s consideration as a father of Manitoba, and to some, the province’s first premier.

Singh called the situation in Wet’suwet’en territory complex, given the split opinion on the pipeline.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (right) and Paulette Dugauy (left) lead the Métis parade at Festival du Voyageur to celebrate Louis Riel Day.</p>

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (right) and Paulette Dugauy (left) lead the Métis parade at Festival du Voyageur to celebrate Louis Riel Day.

"There are a lot of Indigenous communities... that are really in favour of this (pipeline), and there are communities that are divided," he said. "And it’s not for me as a settler to determine what is the right or wrong thing to do, but it is for me to acknowledge there is a complexity."

Just outside Morris, Man., Monday, organizers with the Urban Warriors Alliance set up a temporary blockade on Highway 75, arriving at 11:30 a.m. Black Turtle, a member of the alliance, said the land defenders funneled traffic and stopped semi-trucks so drivers could acknowledge the demonstration.

Black Turtle said there was tension throughout the day, as some drivers refused to stop. One driver got out and pushed an organizer, they said. About three hours after the blockade started, they said organizers were served an injunction. "We were wondering how that could happen on a holiday Monday," they said. By 5 p.m., organizers left as they’d planned too, Black Turtle added.

Regarding the presence of RCMP at the site of a blockade preventing access to the construction site, Singh said it must be recognized that racialized people, specifically Indigenous people, have long been treated with "heavy-handed" tactics by police at all levels.

"I think absolutely police presence when it’s based on the use of force is heavy-handed, and it’s not going to solve anything," he said. "In fact it’s only going to escalate problems. We’ve seen that in the past, and we can’t allow it to happen again."

The B.C. provincial government, led by NDP Premier John Horgan, and the federal government have been at odds over who can intervene with the RCMP, with both at times saying it’s the other’s jurisdiction.

Singh said that at the end of the day, what needs to happen is nation-to-nation discussion and negotiation if the situation in Wet’suwet’en is ever going to be resolved.

"At the end of the day, what needs to happen is we need to get to the table, negotiate the disagreements and conflicts that need to be negotiated," he said. "The way we solve any issue is by getting together and discussing and solving the problems," he added.

Singh had been critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not meeting directly with hereditary chiefs in Wet’suwet’en, who, in addition to calling for title over the land, have called for discussions with him.

"That to me is an absence of leadership," he said Monday.

On Sunday, Trudeau announced he’d end early an international trip to return to address effects on infrastructure of the national actions.


Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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