Where do the rights of protesters end and the responsibility of government begin?
In the Canada of 2020, that’s no longer a rhetorical question or a philosophical exercise. It’s a reality that governments and citizens find themselves grappling with.
The recent rail blockades are disrupting lives and the national economy with serious repercussions. For a trading nation like Canada, any disruption of the national transportation network has an immediate impact and lingering implications.
Already it’s suspected the costs for the grain sector alone will wind up in the hundreds of millions and that’s just one sector. There are also higher stakes at play as parts of the Maritimes run dangerously low on propane for heating and public utilities fret that chlorine for water treatment is in short supply.
In a show of frustration, Edmonton counter-protesters showed up to tear down one barricade, just hours after it went up. While that level of frustration is predictable, it’s also too likely to be a recipe for violence. Equally dangerous was a game of chicken played on Highway 75 near Morris, between a highway truck and protesters on foot.
Both are very clear illustrations of exactly why people shouldn’t be abandoned by their governments and left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately when it comes to First Nations protests, the government is hamstrung.
The 1990 Oka crisis remains the ghost that haunts government. That land dispute kicked off in July of that year, and an armed standoff lasted 78 days and resulted in one death. And while 30 years have passed since those dramatic events, its long shadow can be seen lingering in government paralysis and inaction when faced with such protests.
About 15 years later the second chapter of this story kicked off, near Caledonia, Ontario, clearly illustrating the government’s fear of treading too heavily.
The initial dispute centred around a 10-house subdivision being built just down the road which local First Nations said was being built on land at the heart of an unsettled Six Nations land claim.
After a couple of months the OPP moved on the property to enforce a court injunction against the occupation, and were met with up to 1,000 flag-waving protesters pouring into the area, driving the police off, according to media reports at the time.
In the days that followed barricades were thrown up on several surrounding roads. A bridge was burnt, fire trucks were denied access to fight the fire, a hydro transformer was destroyed, causing a two-day blackout and the Globe and Mail reported police and civilians straying too close to the occupied land were “terrorized.”
Two of those who were terrorized were Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell, a couple that found their home behind one of the blockades, which turned their lives upside down.
They were forced to show a “passport” issued by the occupiers to access their house. There were repeated threats to burn that home down. They suffered illegal searches of their automobiles, and periodic thefts of their property in those vehicles. Protesters regularly trespassed on their property and nightly spotlights were shone into their windows by protesters wearing camouflage and face masks.
As they alleged in a $7.5-million lawsuit that was quietly settled out of court in 2009, most of this happened under the watchful eye of the OPP.
It might be possible to contain local protests and buy off those affected. But that’s going to be much harder if the recent protests are the new blueprint. One of the rallying cries of the protesters has been to “shut down Canada,” a pledge they may come to regret.
Barry Prentice, of the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute, noted most Canadians support the legal right to protest, and many are sympathetic to the concerns of First Nations. What’s less clear is whether they will support the tactics currently being employed.
“The real question is, what do we do next time?” Prentice said during a recent conversation with this publication. “Are we to expect any time there’s a dispute we’ll have First Nations blocking railways again? Is that something the public will support?”
This is the greased tightrope the federal government has found itself tiptoeing over for the past three decades.
In 2009, when the Caledonia lawsuit was quietly settled, it’s likely many a sigh of relief was heard emanating from Ottawa. Had it gone to court and had a judgment been made in the favour of the plaintiffs, a precedent would have been set that would have knocked the government off this perch.
But perhaps it’s now time to carefully begin considering how to bring this to a peaceful resolution.
Politicians have, after all, had roughly the past three decades to come up with a better plan than closing their eyes and hoping for the best.