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A train blockade in Tyendinaga, near Belleville, Ont., is seen on Feb. 13, 2020. At least 42,000 Via Rail passengers had their travel disrupted in the week after the blockade started cancelling trains in the Montreal-Toronto-Ottawa triangle.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The country’s biggest cargo railway started shutting down operations in Eastern Canada and Via Rail cancelled all passenger service across the country Thursday while political leaders exchanged offers to hold talks to end the rail blockades.

At least 42,000 Via Rail passengers had their travel disrupted in the week after the blockade started cancelling trains in the Montreal-Toronto-Ottawa triangle. Via Rail said it will refund fares for passengers whose trips had been cancelled.

The protests in support of Wet’suwet’en Nation opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia popped up one week ago after the RCMP broke up a camp that was blocking pipeline construction. Demonstrators have blocked railways in B.C. and Ontario, affecting high-volume routes.

The first hope of an end to the impasse emerged when Gitxsan hereditary Chief Norman Stephens, who also goes by Simogyet Spookw, said protesters would remove the rail blockade in the First Nation’s territory near New Hazelton, B.C., pending talks with government.

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“I’ve done this for the Gitxsan, for the Wet’suwet’en, and I welcome all of you to return if talks fail,” he said.

The group maintaining the second major blockade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Southeastern Ontario would not say Thursday whether they would also remove their barricade. The Indigenous, provincial and federal leaders exchanging offers to meet gave no timeline for talks.

Another blockade rose Wednesday on the CN line west of Winnipeg, but the Manitoba government sought an immediate court injunction to take it down and the demonstrators left by Thursday morning.

Canadian National Railway Co. announced Thursday it is “forced to initiate a disciplined and progressive shutdown of its operations in Eastern Canada” while Via Rail said it would park all trains until further notice.

CN said the shutdown could lead to temporary layoffs in Eastern Canadian operations. Teamsters Canada, the union representing CN workers, said it fears the railway could send 6,000 workers home. Metrolinx commuter trains in Toronto and Exo trains in Montreal that run on CN rails will continue to operate, the railway said.

“With over 400 trains cancelled during the last week and new protests that emerged at strategic locations on our mainline, we have decided that a progressive shutdown of our Eastern Canadian operations is the responsible approach to take for the safety of our employees and the protesters,” said J.J. Ruest, CN president and CEO.

Just last fall CN Rail shut down their entire network due to a labour dispute. Bank economists estimated the strike cost the economy $1-billion to $2.2-billion and the company said it set back earnings about $100-million. Via Rail operated normally. Via last shut down for two days in 2009 due to a labour disruption.

Across the entire network, the railway transports about 13,000 people per day, on average.

CN officials, shippers and manufacturers have warned all week the blockades would cause gridlock and supply shortages. Chlorine used in municipal water supplies appeared to be one of the first vital items that could run out.

“There will be shortages,” said Ed Bechberger, president of Erco Worldwide, whose chlorine plant in Saskatoon is one of three in Canada. “Since the issue started in earnest on Monday, none of our shipments have been made. There’s only so much that our distributors or customers have on site and eventually they will deplete.”

In the 24 hours prior to the CN and Via shutdowns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Columbia Premier John Horgan each sent letters to Gitxsan hereditary Chief Stephens agreeing to send cabinet ministers for meetings after he offered to take down the rail barricade set up by the Gitxsan to show support for Wet’suwet’en Nation.

B.C.'s Minister for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, Scott Fraser, said his government responded immediately to the offer, adding he is prepared to meet on the province’s behalf at any time.

“It’s heartening,” he told reporters in Victoria. “The stand-down will be a show of good faith to begin the discussions that are going to happen with between the Gitxsan hereditary chiefs, the Wet’suwet’en, and governments.”

He noted the hereditary chiefs have been asking Ottawa to come to the table for “many, many weeks” and said it is important to the chiefs that the federal government take part in any talks.

Mr. Trudeau, who was travelling overseas, offered to send Crown Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett to attend an in-person meeting. Mr. Trudeau flew from Africa to Germany for meetings on Friday. He returns to Canada on Saturday.

“As you know, our government has been clear that there is no more important relationship to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples,” Mr. Trudeau wrote to Mr. Stephens. The Prime Minister promised to "engage in dialogue on how the current impasse over pipeline development arose, to discuss the current situation and to seek a process that avoids such situations in the future.”

A spokesperson for Ms. Bennett confirmed she is prepared to attend such a meeting, but that a time has not yet been scheduled.

Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford spoke with Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald of Taykwa Tagamou Nation hoping for her assistance to bring down the Ontario barricade on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller extended a similar promise to meet to Ms. Archibald, Tyendinaga Chief Donald Maracle and Kanenhariyo, who also goes by Seth LeFort, to deal with the Ontario blockade.

“My request, that I ask you kindly to consider, is to discontinue the protest and barricade of the train tracks as soon as practicable,” Mr. Miller wrote in his letter. “As you well know, this is a highly volatile situation and the safety of all involved is of the utmost importance to me.”

Mr. Rickford urged Mr. Miller to act quickly. “It is imperative that the federal government take a more proactive role, and minister Miller must no longer delay his travel to the blockade to demonstrate the leadership expected by the community," he said.

With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa, Laura Stone in Toronto and Eric Andrew-Gee in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.

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