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Indigenous Groups Block Gas Pipeline In Canada And Spark Solidarity Protests

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Canada now, where demonstrators have disrupted commerce and occupied government buildings this week. They're trying to block a planned gas pipeline that would run through Indigenous territory in the western province of British Columbia. David McGuffin reports from Ottawa.

(CHEERING)

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: That is the sound of protesters outside British Columbia's provincial legislature. On Tuesday, they blocked lawmakers from entering the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are not trespassers. Canada is trespassing.

(CHEERING)

MCGUFFIN: It was just one of many anti-pipeline protests across Canada this week, shutting down railway lines, ports, highways, city streets, resulting in dozens of arrests. The protests are against the planned $6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline from the western province of Alberta through the territory of the Indigenous Wet'suwet'en people in neighboring British Columbia. A long-standing Indigenous blockade against that pipeline was broken up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last week.

Na'Mok is a Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief.

NA'MOK: They came in with armed forces to remove peaceful people that are doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. We're protecting the land, the air, the water, our rights and title as hereditary chiefs, and we're exercising our jurisdiction.

MCGUFFIN: The police action sparked wider protests. To the east in Ontario, Mohawk demonstrators shut down the main east-west train line, cutting cargo and passenger travel for days between three of Canada's biggest cities, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Canada's transport minister, Marc Garneau, warned of the economic damage being caused.

MARC GARNEAU: The CN and CP and other rail lines in this country that may be blockaded transport an enormous amount of goods - let me say in a very general way, over $300 billion worth a year.

MCGUFFIN: For his part, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, currently on a tour of Africa, is calling for calmer heads to prevail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We recognize the important democratic right - and we will always defend it - of peaceful protest. This is an important part of our democracy in Canada. But we are also a country of the rule of law, and we need to make sure those laws are respected.

MCGUFFIN: The Trudeau government has put priority on improving relations with Canada's Indigenous people. The results have been mixed. Trudeau has also championed this pipeline as a way to help bolster the sagging economy of energy-rich western Canada.

Complicating the issue is that while some hereditary Wet'suwet'en chiefs oppose the pipeline, the vast majority of the elected Indigenous councils along the pipeline route voted in favor of it and negotiated a half billion dollars' worth of contracts for Indigenous-owned companies as part of the deal.

Chief Hellen Michelle is one of the Wet'suwet'en in favor of the pipeline.

HELLEN MICHELLE: We've had lots of consultation in the last five years or so. We all discussed it - elders, our band, all our band members. We agreed. We all agreed.

MCGUFFIN: Some Wet'suwet'en leaders blame outside environmental groups for ginning up opposition. With protesters now removed by police from the path of the pipeline, construction is expected to resume next week. But across the country, protesters continue to disrupt transportation and are even occupying the office of the minister of justice.

For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIC CHAGALL'S "BORDERLINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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