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Cancelled rail arrivals and departures are listed on the board at Central Station in Montreal, on Feb. 14, 2020. Via Rail announced temporary layoffs on Feb. 19.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Via Rail will lay off about 1,000 employees, or one-third of its work force, amid protests that have halted passenger and freight train traffic in much of Canada.

The publicly owned passenger service temporarily laid off the workers one day after 450 job losses at Canadian National Railway Co., which has suspended operations on its network east of Toronto because of the dispute that stems from the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia.

“This general interruption is an unprecedented situation in our history. In 42 years of existence, it is the first time that Via Rail, a public intercity passenger rail service, has [had] to interrupt most of its services across the country,” said Cynthia Garneau, Via’s chief executive officer.

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Protesters, in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who oppose Coastal GasLink’s $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline through their territory, have shut down parts of the country’s rail network for two weeks.

Canadian business leaders have warned repeatedly in the past week about looming factory shutdowns and shortages because of stalled rail traffic and clogged ports. The chemical, manufacturing and food industries have been particularly vocal.

As the job losses and economic warnings mount, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under growing pressure from business groups and political opponents to find a solution to the rail crisis.

So far the railways have borne the brunt of announced layoffs. Via, which pays CN to use its tracks, suspended service across Canada last Thursday, with the exception of two lines in Northern Ontario and Manitoba it leases from other railways. Via said it plans to resume service to Southwestern Ontario from Toronto, and between Ottawa and Quebec City on Thursday.

“Despite these latest developments, however, until CN Rail opens the remaining tracks for service, Via Rail has no choice but to continue the cancellation of its services on a large part of its network,” said Via, a Crown corporation that employs 3,100 people and serves more than 400 communities on a 12,500-kilometre network that spans the country.

Via spokeswoman Marie-Anna Murat said the 1,000 layoffs affect employees across the country who work in customer service, locomotive engineers, equipment maintenance and asset management.

The layoffs include union members of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, Unifor and other labour groups, said Christopher Monette, a spokesman for the Teamsters union, which represents train engineers, conductors and other employees at CN and Via. Freight train operators are on call, and many are not being summoned to work, even though they have not been officially laid off, he said.

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CN on Tuesday laid off workers at its operations in Montreal, Halifax, Moncton and Charny, Que., after weekend protests in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs disrupted traffic at its MacMillan train yard near Toronto.

“It’s bad,” Mr. Monette said. “We have a lot of members in our rail sector who are hurting right now.”

Another blockade on CN tracks was short-lived. A sign reading “No pipelines on stolen land” was erected across CN’s tracks west of Edmonton on Wednesday morning as part of a new blockade in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. A group called Cuzzins for Wet’suwet’en pushed wooden crates on the train line and said in a news release that it intended to block the tracks until the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory, but by the end of the day the blockade was cleared.

Mr. Monette added his voice to those urging the federal government to find a speedy solution to the impasses to limit the economic damage. “We understand that it’s a political problem that requires a political solution,” Mr. Monette said by phone, “but it’s ordinary working-class Canadians that are starting to hurt here.”

Bruce Snow, Unifor’s director of transportation, said the Via layoffs affect 875 of his members, and he expects more to come. “If CN’s network doesn’t open up, this [number] will increase,” Mr. Snow said. “The problem is Via is at the mercy of CN.”

Meanwhile, Ghislain Houle, CN’s chief financial officer, told an investors’ conference in Miami the railway is not revising its profit guidance for 2020 as a result of the stoppages across the country, and that business at the B.C. port of Prince Rupert has risen by 29 per cent this year.

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Mr. Houle said the pipeline protests have “nothing to do” with CN. “We’re a bit taken hostage. We’re a … victim. But we’re working with the Canadian government and co-operating with them and we’re very hopeful that this blockage on our eastern network will be lifted … in the next day or two.”

“I don’t want to [underplay] the impact of the blockades that are on our eastern network but at this point we’re not panicking. There’s business out there,” Mr. Houle said. “There are opportunities to move more crude. Grain is good as well.”

Mr. Houle’s remarks stand in contrast to those of affected companies and business lobby groups, who warn of economic damage, job losses and shortage of vital supplies of water treatment chemicals and propane for heating homes and hospitals. On Wednesday, grocers called on first ministers to convene and find a way to end the blockade.

Gary Sands, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said some stores are reporting shortages while others “are expecting shortages very soon.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business issued an open letter to Mr. Trudeau, calling on the federal government to work with the provinces and police to end the blockades.

“Canada’s reputation as a dependable place to do business is at stake if a speedy resolution is not reached,” the CFIB said, noting companies unable to produce goods and fulfill orders face financial penalties, layoffs and lost sales.​

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