Skip to main content

The free-trade deal between Canada and the European Union has boosted container shipping and prompted a hiring spree at the docks, Montreal port officials say.

The volume moving through the gates of the country’s second-largest port jumped 19.7 per cent in July compared with the same month last year, reaching the equivalent of about 147,000 20-foot containers, according to the Maritime Employers Association.

Container imports increased 7.8 per cent to nearly 4.33 million tonnes in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2017, with the bulk of that traffic coming from Europe.

The employers association, which handles training for the port workforce, as well as the Montreal Port Authority attribute much of the container inflow to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement signed by Canada and the European Union in 2016.

CETA came into provisional effect last September, offering Canadian companies broader access to one of the world’s largest markets.

The extra dock traffic spurred the association to start hiring 50 more longshoremen and 15 more auditors, and resulted in several key terminals nearly doubling their operating time to 17 hours each workday.

Stephane Morency, president and chief executive of the association, said the surge stems largely from food and metal imports that range from wine and cheese to steel girders, with work on Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge – slated to open in December – being a major driver.

“There’s a lot of steel on that bridge. And a lot of those big I-beams, huge I-beams are coming from Europe,” he said.

Overall traffic during the first half of the year actually dropped 4.9 per cent to 17.75 million tonnes compared with the first six months of 2017, according to port figures.

A precipitous drop in bulk cargo, particularly grain exports, prompted the dip, said Pierre-Yves Boivin, vice-president of the federation that represents Quebec’s Chambers of Commerce.

Serge Auclair, a vice-president at the Montreal Port Authority, stressed the need to carve out more free-trade deals beyond the United States as markets in Asia and Eastern Europe open up.

Ottawa has inked agreements in the past five years with Honduras, South Korea, Ukraine and, most recently, the EU.

The trend toward packing commodities such as grain or pulp and paper into steel shipping containers also helps explain the container traffic uptick, Mr. Auclair said.

“More and more, even though containerizing costs a little more, it allows some flexibility and some companies are interested in using that opportunity to ship to other destinations,” he said, pointing toward greater pest and bacteria control as well.

The port authority hopes to open another container terminal on Montreal’s South Shore to accommodate market growth, which climbed 14 per cent over four years to hit 1.54 million 20-foot equivalent units in 2017. The port completed an environmental-impact assessment in January.

About $41-billion worth of goods move through the Port of Montreal each year, according to the port authority.

Last year, food, construction materials and iron and steel products made up the largest portion of container imports, respectively, while forestry products, food and grain comprised nearly half of all container exports.

Interact with The Globe