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Protests Against Gas Pipeline Project Halt Rail Traffic Across Canada


Canada is now in a - is now in day 10 of anti-pipeline protests that have shut rail traffic in most of the country, causing a major economic disruption. David McGuffin has that story from Ottawa.

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: It's unprecedented. Passenger rail service in all of Canada shut down, along with cargo rail traffic in the east of the country.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MCGUFFIN: This is due to blockades of rail lines across Canada by Indigenous and environmental protesters. They're trying to stop a natural gas pipeline from being built through the lands of the Wet'suwet'en First Nations people in the western province of British Columbia. Molly Wicklow (ph), spokesperson for the Wet'suwet'en protesters, says they won't back down until the pipeline is halted.

MOLLY WICKHAM: 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.

MCGUFFIN: Demonstrations spread across Canada this week after police removed Wet'suwet'en protesters from the path of the coast gasoline pipeline. Opponents shifted to blocking railway lines as a way of bringing the issue to national attention. A blockade by Mohawk protesters on the main rail line between Toronto and Montreal, Canada's biggest cities, has ground the national network to a halt. Derek Nighbor, representing Canada's multibillion-dollar forest products industry, says the impact is already being felt.

DEREK NIGHBOR: It's been tens of millions of dollars in additional costs, inability to commit to delivering products to customers. And even if everything got resolved today, we still probably wouldn't be getting empty cars and raw materials into our mills till probably later next week.

MCGUFFIN: Canada's economy is heavily reliant on exports. It does a trillion dollars in annual trade with the U.S. alone each year. A large percentage of those goods travel by rail. Andrew Scheer, leader of the federal Conservative Party, says the time has come for Justin Trudeau's liberal government to order police to break up the blockades.


ANDREW SCHEER: These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade. But they need to check their privilege. They need to check their privilege and let people whose job depends on the railway system, small business, farmers do their jobs.

MCGUFFIN: The Teamsters, Canada's biggest transportation union, warns 6,000 railway workers could be laid off if there isn't a resolution soon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticized for being out of the country during this crisis on a tour through Africa and Europe. On Friday from Germany, he insisted that a forceful resolution to the standoff isn't the answer.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We are not the kind of country where politicians get to tell the police what to do in operational matters. We are a country that recognizes the right to protest. But we are a country of the rule of law. And we will ensure that everything is done to resolve this through dialogue and constructive outcomes.

MCGUFFIN: And that could mean that Canada's rail networks and economy are tied up for days more to come. For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Ottawa.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly refer to Molly Wickham as Molly Wicklow. And in a previous version of the correction that was published Feb. 22 we incorrectly called her Mary.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 24, 2020 at 9:00 PM PST
In this story, we incorrectly refer to Molly Wickham as Molly Wicklow. And in a previous version of the correction that was published Feb. 22 we incorrectly called her Mary.
David McGuffin