The blockades that tried to shut down Canada

A look into the Wet’suwet’en protests

by Caroline Fyvie

Since the beginning of 2020, many Canadians were consumed with the rail blockades that started on the west coast and then quickly spread across the country. The cause of the blockades? A group of protestors, including some of the hereditary chiefs from Wet’suwet’en First Nations, who opposed Coastal GasLink’s $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline project through Northern British Columbia. The project, set to run from Dawson Creek to just outside Kitimat, was approved by the province of B.C. and supported by all 20 First Nations band councils along the pipeline route, including five of six Wet’suwet’en councils. Back in 2014, the project was estimated to provide $115 million in payments to elected Wet’suwet’en band councils over the next 25 years and generate over $60-million in construction contracts for indigenous business people.

Having gone through a rigorous consultation and approval process, when news surfaced that some of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs were not in agreement with the pipeline plans, climate activists and Wet’suwet’en supporters gathered to show their support. As time passed, rail blockades popped up across the country, from a short-lived protest outside Edmonton, to long-term blockades in Ontario and Quebec. As the blockades continued week after week, the majority of Canadians became impatient with the groups of protestors who were putting many people’s livelihoods at stake. A poll by Ipsos uncovered that 61 per cent of Canadians disagreed with the protestors and over half of Canadians also wanted police to end the blockades.

A group of protestors supporting Canadian energy.

According to data by Ipsos, the opinions on the protests were divided based on geographical location and age:

  • 58 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 34 believed the protests were justified
  • 71 per cent of Canadians aged 55+ disagreed with the protests
  • 76 per cent of residents of Alberta and 71 per cent of residents of B.C. disagreed with the protests
  • 47 per cent of residents of Quebec and 45 per cent of residents of Ontario saw the protests as justified
Data provided by Ipsos, survey conducted between February 21 and 24, 2020, on behalf of Global News.
What led to the rail blockades?

By early March, information was uncovered by CTV News and Bob Mackin of theBreaker.news, that implied these rail blockades had been preliminary planned at a conference in Ottawa in early 2019. The conference, called PowerShift: Young and Rising, brought together a congregation of young climate activists. PowerShift described their event as teaching participants about how Canada can transition to a renewable energy economy. The conference was sponsored by 350.org, and environmental group based out of the US, Climate Action Network Canada, GreenPeace, and other organizations that regularly target the energy industry with protests and civil disobedience, hoping to one day stop the production of oil and gas.

In February, 350.org Canada boasted about the Wet’suwet’en blockades on their Twitter account, stating that Powershift’s keynote speaker, Kanahus Manuel, had discussed shutting down Canada the year prior at the conference.

Other Aboriginal people, however, were vocal about how protestors’ support for a minority of unelected hereditary chiefs, and not the elected chief and counsel, made a mockery of the true governance structure of the Wet’suwet’en. Additionally, it became apparent that some protestors were being paid for their work. In many cases throughout the ordeal, climate protestors were organized by paid employees of organizations such as Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace Canada posted a job for Head of Campaign (Climate) in early March, that listed a competitive annual salary of $70 thousand. The job description stated, “The head of our climate campaign will supervise and empower a team of passionate campaigners who want to change the world.” Stand.Earth had also posted paid positions that included stopping Canadian oilsands operations in their list of responsibilities. Stephen Buffalo, CEO and president of the Indian Resource Council reported to APTN National News that he, “heard of environmental groups offering up to $300 per person and ‘$500 if they’re wearing feathers.’ ”

The cost of the blockades

According to Canada’s Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, the economic burden of the blockades will take six months to assess. Layoffs to Canadian workers, delayed industrial production, and adjustments to shipping routes will all be factored into the equation. The private sector has estimated the blockades to have cost .03 per cent of Canada’s economic activity for Q1 2020, or equivalent to the entire growth in the Canadian economy in Q4 2019. Agricultural sectors such as beef and grain supply chains lost roughly $63 million each week the blockades were in effect, according to the Western Grain Elevator Association.

The true cost of the disruption is difficult to measure due to its far-reaching consequences, including future investment. In early March it was reported that Warren Buffett pulled Berkshire Hathaway’s $4 billion stake from a $9 billion LNG project in Quebec due to political uncertainty; implications beyond the short-term are difficult to predict, but it appears likely there could be less investment in Canadian energy for years to come, as Canada’s reputation with respect to critical infrastructure has been damaged yet again.

Coming to an agreement

At the beginning of March, provincial and federal government ministers, and hereditary chiefs came to a tentative, forward-looking agreement and the Coastal GasLink pipeline was given the go-ahead to continue as planned. The proposed agreement will be shown to all members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation before they officially sign, and it will recognize aboriginal rights and title of traditional lands for future projects. The forward-looking agreement was made in hopes that this type of situation doesn’t occur again. With the 2020 Wet’suwet’en blockades now behind us, we can all hope that future projects are not impeded in this way and that our economy can get back on its feet, sooner rather than later.