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Striking Canadian National Railway workers picket in front of the company's Taschereau railyard Friday, November 22, 2019 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The federal government faced mounting calls Sunday to legislate striking Canadian National Railway Co. employees back to work as pockets of the Canadian economy began to show the strains five days after the country’s largest freight railway operator cut back to a fraction of its capacity.

Across the country representatives from a number of industries warned of imminent shutdowns and layoffs if the strike continues for a prolonged period and called for Ottawa to do something.

“They have to be getting at this, you can’t say quick enough,” said Barry Senft, CEO of the Grain Farmers of Ontario. “This is just the worst possible way you could go into this harvest."

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CN itself warned Saturday it would temporarily lay off 70 workers starting Thursday at its Halifax port operations due to lack of activity.

“If we haven’t seen some action by noon Monday we are really going to be asking the federal government to really step into this, implement something … and get the trains moving again as quickly as possible,” said Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit. A prolonged strike will “have a huge impact on our economy. We’re very dependent on rail freight transportation.”

A strike by 3,200 Canadian National Railway conductors and yard workers has closed Canada’s largest rail freight network triggering fears about the impact on farmers, mining companies and other pillars of the economy. The Globe and Mail (staff)

CN and the Teamsters union, which represents 3,200 conductors and rail yard workers who went on strike last Tuesday, continued negotiations over the weekend but had no agreement by Sunday evening. A Teamsters spokesman said they were no closer to a deal than when the strike began. A CN spokesperson said the company remained optimistic it could reach a deal and continues to call for binding arbitration. The railway is currently running at 10 per cent of its capacity.

The federal government reiterated its position that the two parties should reach a deal on their own rather than through a government-mandated process. “Our government believes in the collective bargaining process,” said Labour Minister Filomena Tassi in a statement Sunday.

But representatives of industries heavily affected by the strike say they need a solution very soon.

“We’re frustrated with the federal government,” Bob Masterson, CEO of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, which represents chemical manufacturers. “People will soon be furloughed and out of work when chemical facilities shut down, which is close because there’s nowhere left to store their product or they’re not receiving inputs.”

Mining Association of Canada spokeswoman Cynthia Waldmeier said an unspecified number of mining operations “could start to shut down this week” due to the strike, while two Western Canadian operations that receive crude oil for rail shipments, TORQ Energy Logistics and Altex Energy, said they were running out of storage space, Bloomberg reported.

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Meanwhile, some grain handling operators across Ontario informed farmers they could no longer take their corn because they had run out of propane – which is shipped from the west by rail through Sarnia, Ont. – to dry out the harvested crops so they won’t rot in container bins.

“For those elevators that run on propane it’s a crisis,” said David Buttenham, CEO of the Ontario Agri Business Association. He added the situation is exacerbating what has been a tough year for corn farmers, who had to delay planting due to wet spring conditions and who still have yet to harvest most of their crops.

Winnipeg grain handling giant Parrish & Heimbecker Limited informed customers on Saturday it could no longer accept corn at two Ontario grain elevators. Some operators that had previously closed reopened to receive corn on the weekend – including Maxville, Ont.’s MacEwen Agricentre – but warned that could be temporary if propane shortages continue.

“We hope something will get settled this week," said Eric Metcalfe, operations manager with MacEwen, which serves hundreds of area farmers. "We have room for another day or so [of corn] until we have to shut again.”

“This can’t wait for weeks,” said Kevin Klippenstein, chief financial officer of grain company Parrish & Heimbecker. “At some point there will be an impact on employment because when you have locations that can’t receive or ship grain, then your employees aren’t doing anything. And for the farmers that are relying on this cash flow to pay their bills, it will take months to recover from a stoppage."

Conservative MP John Barlow of the Foothills riding of Alberta said the government “clearly doesn’t understand the crisis this strike is causing throughout the economy." He called on the government to reconvene Parliament and noted railway employees have been legislated back to work in the past.

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But NDP House Leader Peter Julian urged the government not to legislate employees back to work. “If the government has a pressure point it should be to get a successful conclusion to collective bargaining.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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