Bill Blair Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

B.C. residents in Wet’suwet’en territory have right to police presence: Public Safety Minister

Nevertheless, Bill Blair said officials remain ‘very anxious’ for the barricades to come down

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says the Mounties have left an outpost on the road to a disputed natural-gas pipeline project in B.C. but he appears to dismiss the notion that police will move completely out of the vast Wet’suwet’en territory.

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation at the heart of countrywide rail and road disruptions have said they will not meet with federal and provincial officials to discuss their opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline until the RCMP leave their traditional territory entirely and the pipeline company ceases work in the area.

Blair said this morning the RCMP, which is under contract to police provincially in B.C., has removed its officers from an access road to a work site for the pipeline and stationed them in the nearby town of Houston, about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C.

But when it comes to the hereditary chiefs’ demand that the RCMP leave the 22,000 square kilometres of the Wet’suwet’en traditional territory — an area about twice the size of Cape Breton Island and a little smaller than Lake Erie — Blair said the people who live there have a right to be protected by police.

“I think there’s a very important principle: there are thousands of Canadians that live in that area are entitled to policing services,” Blair said.

“They are entitled, as every Canadian is, to be served and protected by a police service, and that’s what takes place in all parts of Canada including in British Columbia.”

Blair said he is optimistic about dialogue between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and provincial officials and that there is hope of resolving the issues still in dispute.

Nevertheless, he said officials remain “very anxious” for the barricades to come down.

Separately, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have been meeting with one another in B.C. over the last two days after some of them travelled to Ontario and Quebec to meet Mohawk supporters last week.

Bennett said she is hoping to hear back from the chiefs today on whether they will invite her and her B.C. counterpart to discuss the protests and rail blockades.

One of the hereditary chiefs, Na’moks, who also goes by John Ridsdale, said today he believes progress is being made on the conditions the chiefs made for meeting with federal and provincial leaders.

He confirmed former New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen has resumed his role as mediator and liaison in the tense discussions and a meeting could happen as early as tomorrow.

He said the chiefs want the RCMP mobile detachment on the access road removed from their territory and they also want the Mounties to stop foot patrols.

Cullen has informed the chiefs that the RCMP is willing to dismantle the mobile unit but can’t meet the chiefs’ deadline of tomorrow, Na’moks said.

He added that the chiefs have agreed that as long as the foot patrols stop and the unit is shuttered, they have accepted that as meeting their terms for now.

He said the chiefs have also heard a commitment that pipeline workers will leave the territory and they plan to visit the remote area where work is occurring to verify that the terms have been met.

“In our view things are moving forward because we think the message has been clearly put to the provinces and the federal government that the relationship with Indigenous people and both levels of government has to change,” he said.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

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