KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Indigenous people voiced their anger and frustration with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday at a town hall in Kamloops, B.C., loudly interrupting him to condemn the arrests of protesters at a pipeline blockade.
While Trudeau was answering a question on accountability for the oil and gas industry, a man stood up in the crowd and began to yell that the prime minister had lied about wanting reconciliation with First Nations.
“You’re getting people arrested,” the man said. “You’re a liar and a weak leader. What do you tell your children?”
Trudeau calmly asked the man, several times, to sit down and allow him to finish answering the question. After several minutes, the man apologized and sat down, to applause from the crowd.
RCMP arrested 14 people Monday at a pipeline blockade in northwestern B.C., sparking protests across the country. Demonstrators on both sides of the pipeline debate appeared at Trudeau’s events in Kamloops on Wednesday.
Trudeau called on an Indigenous woman in the town hall crowd to ask a question, and she asked how he would improve Canada’s treatment of First Nations. Her question was met with angry cries from the crowd about the arrested protesters.
The prime minister replied that Canada had mistreated First Nations for generations, but he is working toward reconciliation and met with Indigenous leaders to discuss self-governance on Tuesday.
“It will take time to improve (the relationship), but we are making significant progress,” he said.
“You are afraid to lose everything you benefit from,” the woman yelled.
“No, I’m not,” Trudeau replied. “I am prepared to walk with you. ... I understand the anger and the passion that you have about protecting your land.”
After a lengthy exchange in which the woman continued to press him on how he allowed the arrests to happen, Trudeau said it was possible the woman was “not listening” to him and he tried to move on. Members of the crowd continued to occasionally yell, with one crying out, “Shame on you!”
Trudeau fielded mostly friendly questions from the crowd of hundreds earlier in the night. One audience member asked him what the best part of his day was, and he replied that it was when his four-year-old son jumped on his bed to wake him up.
A 65-year-old woman in the crowd said she had a four-year-old grandson and she was worried about his future. She said she had spoken with environmentalist David Suzuki, who was critical of the Liberal government’s handling of the climate.
Trudeau responded that the world is changing and people are becoming a lot more thoughtful about their own behaviours. He said we do need to make shifts toward a cleaner economy and create jobs for the future.
“There is no question we’re in a time of difficult change,” adding that his government is moving forward with a price on carbon. There are tremendous causes for optimism, he said, and that’s where he disagrees with Suzuki, though he respects him.
“I’m just a little more optimistic than he is,” Trudeau said.
Speaking to supporters at an earlier Kamloops event Trudeau touted the benefits of the $40-billion liquefied natural gas project at the centre of the impasse with First Nations.
In a campaign-style speech at the Liberal fundraiser, Trudeau did not address Monday's arrests at a protest against construction of a natural gas pipeline by Coastal GasLink, which is a key part of the LNG Canada project. He instead heralded the massive project as one of his government's key achievements over the past year.
"We moved forward on the LNG Canada project, which is the largest private sector investment in Canada's history, $40 billion, which is going to produce Canadian LNG that will supplant coal in Asia as a power source and do much for the environment," he said.
The RCMP enforced a B.C. Supreme Court injunction Monday that ordered the removal of any obstructions to the pipeline project in and around the Morice River Bridge on a remote forest service road southwest of Houston.
The pipeline company says it has signed agreements with all First Nations along the route but demonstrators say Wet'suwet'en house chiefs, who are hereditary rather than elected, have not given their consent.
Trudeau also told Radio NL that "we're going to have to do a better job" of dealing with First Nations rights and title.
"There's still work to be done right across the country in terms of having the opportunity for Indigenous communities to strengthen their governance models," he said.
Dozens of protesters on both sides of the pipeline debate gathered outside the hotel where the fundraiser was held.
Demonstrators wearing yellow vests carried signs that read "Carbon Tax Cash Grab" and "Trudeau for Treason" while taking part in a chant opposing a United Nations pact on migration signed by Canada. Conservative critics argue it threatens Canada's sovereignty.
Keith LaRiviere, who is Cree and participated in the yellow-vest protest, said he knows some of the people involved in the pipeline blockade.
He said he supports their right to protest but he believes those building the pipeline also have the right to do their work.
"I go to sweat lodges with some of those people so I really know them intimately, and I do support their cause. I do support their right to their land. I don't support the aggressive way they were forced out of their position," said LaRiviere, who travelled from Prince George.
On the other side of the hotel parking lot, a group of Indigenous protesters opposed to the pipeline sang, drummed and held a banner reading "PM Trudeau: Canada needs climate action now."