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Canadian PM Trudeau Says Rail Barricades 'Must Come Down', Doesn't Say How

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about protesters' ongoing rail blockade in a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, on Friday.
Patrick Doyle
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about protesters' ongoing rail blockade in a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, on Friday.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that the barricades that have blocked railways in the country for two weeks must come down, calling the situation "unacceptable and untenable."

Indigenous and environmental protesters have blocked key railways, shutting rail traffic in much of the country. Protesters are trying to stop the 416-mile, $4.68 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline project in British Columbia, which is being built through the lands of the Wet'suwet'en First Nations people.

After police removed Wet'suwet'en protesters from the path of the natural gas pipeline, opponents shifted to blocking railway lines as a way of bringing the issue to national attention.

Protesters have erected blockades in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en people.

In a news conference Friday afternoon, Trudeau spoke at length about the need for the barricades to be removed, but he offered no specifics about steps the government would take to make that happen.

"The leadership within these indigenous communities will find a way to bring down these barricades peacefully, but as a federal government, we have exhausted our capacity to engage in a positive, substantive active way, at our initiative, to resolve this," he said. "The onus has now shifted to onto indigenous leadership to look to continue this path of reconciliation in this difficult situation."

Molly Wickham, spokesperson for the Wet'suwet'en protesters, told NPR they won't back down until the pipeline is halted: "The federal government and the province both have a responsibility to acknowledge that the Wet'suwet'en have never ceded, surrendered or extinguished our title to our lands. And we have full jurisdiction and authorization to make decisions on our territory."

Among the requests by Wet'suwet'en hereditary leadership is that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police remove its temporary command post on Wet'suwet'en land, which the RCMP has agreed to do.

Trudeau indicated what the police should do: "The responsibility of law enforcement in this country is to keep the peace and ensure that laws are enforced — and indeed to enforce those laws. How they do that, and when they do that is part of their responsibility and their professionalism."

The Canadian National Railway has laid off 450 people temporarily due to the blockage, while the Via Rail passenger service has laid off about 1,000, Reuters reports. The barricades have caused shortages in propane for heating livestock barns and slowed deliveries of grain. Containers have been piling up at Canada's largest ports and some 50 ships are waiting to unload in Vancouver, according to The Associated Press.

Conservatives have called on Trudeau to clear the blockages, but he has been insistent on resolving the problem peacefully.

"My message is that injunctions must be obeyed, barricades must come down, but we must look to see this happen peacefully," he said. "We must look to be able to continue on this path of reconciliation that is not and will never be easy. But that requires a partnership and a trust that needs to be built on positive actions."

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Corrected: February 21, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story refers to the Coastal GasLink project as a gasoline pipeline. The pipeline will carry natural gas.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.