Budgets, bridges and blockades

Premier John Horgan spoke about the budget and ongoing crisis with blockades at GVBOT address

Premiers John Horgan fields questions from GVBOT CEO Bridgitte Anderson on budget, bridges and blockades. | Nelson Bennett

Premier John Horgan said he is hoping to resolve a national crisis with First Nations and rail blockades through "dialogue" but so far the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en are refusing to meet with federal and provincial ministers to have that dialogue, despite repeated offers.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just conceded that "dialogue" isn't working and is now abandoning attempt to negotiate with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, who have managed to rally other First Nations, notably Ontario's Mohawks, as wellas non-indigenous protesters to their campaign against a natural gas pipeline.

"Every attempt at dialogue has been made," Trudeau said in a press conference today. "But discussions have not been productive. We can't have dialogue when only one party is coming to the table. For this reason, we have no choice but to stop making the same overtures."

He said barricades that have brought railway traffic to a halt in Eastern Canada for two weeks now "now must come down."

"The injunctions must be obeyed and the law must be upheld."

Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs have demanded that RCMP withdraw from the area where they had enforced an injunction -- something the RCMP have signaled they are prepared to do -- and have all Coastal GasLink workers withdraw.

That would mean a halt to the $6.6 billion natural gas pipeline project, which is part of the LNG Canada project, and that is not an option as far as Horgan is concerned.

"The project will proceed," he told reporters in a scrum, following an address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) Friday morning. "It's fundamental to our economy, fundamental to prosperity for people in the north."

Horgan was there to talk about the provincial budget, which came down Tuesday. But he also addressed the ongoing crisis of railway blockades. 

Although railway blockades in B.C. have come down, the ones still in place in Ontario are having an impact on Canada's ports, including Vancouver's.

“We have 40-plus ships sitting out in port that cannot be loaded and unloaded," said GVBOT CEO Bridgitte Anderson. "And the economy's coming to a halt. We've got CN Rail laying off people."

She asked what the way forward was to addressing the crisis.

Horgan has recently held teleconferences with Canada's premiers and with deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland. But so far, neither provincial or federal politicians seem to have any answers.

Horgan said his government and Ottawa have tried to meet with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, "but we haven't been able to find anyone to meet with, quite frankly."

Horgan pointed out that the Wet'suwet'en themselves are expressing growing impatience and dissatisfaction with their own hereditary chiefs, who are intractable on the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Earlier this week, it was reported that some 200 people, mostly Wet'suwet'en, turned out to a meeting to voice support for the pipeline project and dissatisfaction with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en.

"We're hearing from more voices in the community, not just the hereditary leaders that have become prominent during this dispute, but the matriarchs -- the women in the community who have been historically who have been the keepers of the traditional ways of the Wet'suwet'en people," Horgan said.

Hereditary chiefs with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en were invited twice this week to meet with provincial and federal aboriginal affairs ministers to try to resolve an ongoing standoff between them, Coastal GasLink and their own community.

Instead, they flew to Ontario to meet with Mohawk First Nations who have been blockading railway lines in solidarity with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs. They are expected to hold a press conference today. It's not clear whether the Wet'suwet'en chiefs are trying to broker a resolution to blockades that threaten the Canadian economy, or use Mohawk First Nations to shore up support for their own cause.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also expected to hold a press conference today.

As for the protests and demonstrations that have occurred in support of the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, Horgan said they have every right to demonstrate "but they don't have every right to intrude with the legitimate activities of other citizens. Freedom to have an opinion is one thing. Freedom to disrupt unlawfully the activities of other people is not on."

But he said it was up to police, not government, to decide whether to arrest people for illegally blocking traffic and public transit.

"I do not want to live in a society where politicians direct police to move people out of the way if they're inconvenienced," he said.

As for the provincial budget that came down Tuesday, Horgan was asked about a tax hike for the upper tax bracket. Business groups have expressed concerns that that could deter C-suite executives from making Vancouver home and headquarters. They are, after all, "the ones who grow the economy," Anderson said.

Horgan suggested that that tax hike might now have been necessary, were it not for ICBC, which has lost more than $2 billion.

"Had we not put two and little bit billion dollars into ICBC, that might not have been a requirement," Horgan said.

It was a seque for Horgan to defend his government's plans to switch the public auto insurance company to a no-fault system, a move expected to reduce ICBC's costs.

The budget that came down Tuesday has capital spending for the Broadway subway line, but there is no plan or money yet to extend that line past Arbutus Street out to University of British Columbia. Horgan was pressed on the extension.

"Let's get the shovel in the ground at Broadway and we'll get to UBC later," Horgan said. "We have to take these in digestible bites."

Asked about the George Massey Tunnel replacement, Horgan said that the precious Liberal government's plan was for a tolled bridge, which would mean no federal funding, and which the Mayors Council on Transportation did not support. The Horgan government appears to be leaning more in favour of a twinned tunnel project. 

There is money in the budget for planning but no line item in the capital budget to fully fund the project.

"We want to make sure that we're saying to the community that we're building this, but we're not building it today," Horgan said.

One of the legacies of the 2010 Winter Olympics was the acceleration of the long-plan Richmond-airport-Vancouver transit system (the Canada Line), and there has now been some interest expressed in Vancouver bidding on hosting Winter Olympics again in 2030. Asked if he thinks Vancouver should try to host the games again Horgan said "I'm good with that," but said it may be "premature" to start planning for it.

"If there's a credible bid committee that comes together and brings us a plan, we're happy to look at that," he said. "But I think it's premature today. Let's get to UBC with the SkyTrain before we start talking about the Olympics."

He also challenged the business community to build support for the idea.

"If you believe, as others do -- the organizers of 2010 -- that this is something we should take on, then you should sign up. Get on the Internet, connect with people and put together a plan."

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv