Trudeau has every right to call for an end to blockades

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It is one thing for the hereditary chiefs to demand reconciliation from the rest of us. But they need to show their good faith as well.

By Sheila Copps

First published in The Hill Times on February 24, 2020.

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s conciliatory approach to the barricades is wearing a little thin.

It is fine to ask Canadians to exercise patience, but when more than 1,500 people are to be laid off because of illegal occupations, patience comes at a heavy cost.

Trudeau’s decision to exclude Andrew Scheer from the opposition leaders’ meeting was also ill-considered.

He may not agree with Scheer’s perspective, but a discussion involving opposition leaders should not be exclusionary.

How can one possibly rally the opposition, when the leader of the largest opposition contingent in the House of Commons is deemed persona non grata?

Many have characterized Scheer’s speech on the blockade as inflammatory and destructive, which was why Trudeau declined to invite him to the opposition discussion.

That certainly was the case, but in a discussion, you can’t only invite the people you agree with.

Whoever is advising the prime minister, is pursuing the same “go softly” approach that almost cost the Liberals the last election.

In the matter of SNC-Lavalin and former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, Trudeau spent weeks trying to bring two former ministers onside with conciliatory public statements. He appeared oblivious to the public shellacking his reputation was taking from Wilson-Raybould and colleague and former minister Jane Philpott.

Harsh reactions are not in Trudeau’s DNA. His first election promising sunny ways was a reflection of his own approach to life. His commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, for example, is personal and very real. And he sees the blockades as a litmus test of that commitment.

But when the sun is not shining, leadership sometimes must replace conciliation with toughness.

During the SNC-Lavalin controversy last year, Trudeau refused to publicly rebuke caucus colleagues who were openly attacking his integrity. He tried unsuccessfully for weeks to get Wilson-Raybould and Philpott back onside.

He sent caucus members to conciliate and did his level best to win them over in private without criticizing them publicly.

Instead, Trudeau simply succeeded to strengthening Wilson-Raybould’s hand and casting himself as a weak and indecisive leader.

That impression of weakness was the key reason the Liberals were unable to garner the nation’s confidence with a majority government.

Now in a minority, Trudeau has no choice but to converse with all opposition parties. The decision to exclude Scheer makes the Conservative leader the issue, and not in a good way for Trudeau.

Instead of trying to work with all parties to find a solution embraced by everyone, the Liberals have left the door open to making Scheer the lead spokesperson for law and order.

Trudeau was right to attack Scheer’s comments in the House. It is not up to the government to call in the police. But it is certainly up to the prime minister to speak out loudly and clearly about the right of Canadians to get to work.

When a group is blocking parliament, a passenger train route or freight train links, it is illegally disrupting the right of other Canadians to go about their business.

The exercise of patience is not going to solve this dilemma. When Indigenous chiefs themselves are asking protesters to end their blockades, the prime minister needs to back up the chiefs.

Illegal occupation of workplaces should not be negotiable.

But in tying the current blockades into the reconciliation agenda, Trudeau risks losing the political credit for what his government has already accomplished.

Full funding for Indigenous education, an end in sight to boil water advisories, framework governance agreements, it is fair to say that there has been more progress on reconciliation in the past four years than has happened in the last four decades.

With all the premiers now demanding a solution, the pressure will mount on the prime minister to get tough.

It may go against his grain, but Trudeau needs to move quickly, or the unfettered blockades will spiral further out of control. The longer nothing is done, the more cross-country disruptions will spread.

With Indigenous leaders at his side, Trudeau has every right to call for an end to the blockades, as a sign of good faith.

It is one thing for the hereditary chiefs to demand reconciliation from the rest of us. But they need to show their good faith as well.

If they absolutely refuse to negotiate, there is no point in shutting down the Canadian economy to get them onside.

That wish would be as fruitless as the prime minister’s hope last year that soft words would settle the SNC-Lavalin affair. Leadership can be tough.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.