OTTAWA — The Liberal government is going out of its way to downplay the prospect of violent confrontations at oil pipeline protests.
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, who set off days of consternation by suggesting "defence forces" might respond to non-peaceful protests, didn't have to be asked Tuesday before once again announcing that the government "embraces" dissent.
"The point I wanted to make was that one of those characteristics of Canada that makes us such a special country is that we have not only tolerance for dissent but we embrace dissent, because it is an essential characteristic of who we are to be Canadian," Carr told reporters gathered outside a Liberal cabinet meeting.
"And I also wanted to make the point that civil disobedience and peaceful protest is very much a part of our history and I should have left it at that."
His comments came as Justin Trudeau was attending an Assembly of First Nations meeting, where some chiefs had threatened to walk out of the prime minister's speech over an ill-advised Carr comment about "defence forces" and pipeline protests.
Some First Nations and environmental groups have promised major demonstrations over the Liberal government's controversial decision last week to approve the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline from Alberta into suburban Vancouver.
"If people choose for their own reasons not to be peaceful, then the government of Canada, through its defence forces, through its police forces, will ensure that people will be kept safe," Carr told a business group in Edmonton two days after the pipeline announcement.
"If people determine for their own reasons that that's not the path they want to follow, then we live under the rule of law."
Carr has been dialling back that single, inflammatory reference to the military ever since, while opposition MPs and indigenous leaders accuse the Liberals of undermining civil liberties and setting the stage for violence.
Trudeau himself directly referenced the controversy in his address to the AFN, telling the gathering that restoring respect in Crown-First Nations relations "means apologizing when we say things that we shouldn't — and I'm proud of our minister of natural resources who apologized for his unfortunate comment."
Perry Bellegarde, the national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a news conference afterwards that Carr had personally apologized.
"When anybody makes a mistake or a wrong you own up to it, you apologize and you move on," said Bellegarde.
"There's a lot of frustration amongst our chiefs that we don't want another Oka crisis in Canada. We don't want another 1990. That doesn't get anybody anywhere."
The 78-day standoff in Oka pitted police and Canadian Forces soldiers against the Mohawk community over a condominium and golf course expansion on land that included a Mohawk burial ground. A Quebec provincial police corporal, Marcel Lemay, was killed during a gun battle when police stormed a Mohawk barricade. Although the shooter was never identified, a Quebec coroner determined the bullet came from a Mohawk warrior weapon.
The standoff sparked other indigenous demonstrations across the country.
"It was not meant to conjure up images or to bring up bad memories for any community," Carr said Tuesday of his military reference. "And if some took it that way, then I'm sorry."
— Follow @BCheadle on Twitter
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press