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Farmer David Reid walks past empty grain bins that should be full of his Canola crop that is now buried under snow near Cremona, Alta., Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Grain farmers in Alberta are calling on the federal government to designate the country’s railways essential services as resentment lingers from a recent eight-day strike at Canadian National Railway Co. that stalled crop deliveries.

Continued interruptions on Canada’s rail network over the past decade due to frigid weather and labour stoppages have damaged businesses, scared away customers and blighted the country’s reputation around the world, farmers told a senior official from CN during a cereal-growers conference in Banff.

While they can’t control the weather, farmers say it’s time to make sure a strike never happens again. The interruption on CN’s tracks during the strike in November came after an already difficult year for many Prairie farmers who struggled to get waterlogged crops off the fields.

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“We can’t keep being interrupted in the delivery of our product," said Dave Bishop, a farmer from near Lethbridge, and the chair of the farm group Barley Alberta. "When we don’t deliver, we don’t get paid and we’re getting an international reputation for being unreliable. We don’t care how it’s done, it needs to get fixed.”

“This is about more than grain,” said Jason Lenz, who operates a farm near Red Deer. “This is about overall national economic security because that railway is such a vital link to our big ports.”

Fiona Murray, CN’s vice-president of government affairs, told the farmers at the conference that the railway has recovered from the strike that ended on Nov. 26 and is back to moving grain at the same volumes as before the work stoppage. “The orders have been met this week,” she said. “It’s hard to get a monster like CN moving again.”

Ms. Murray did not respond during her public remarks to the request from Barley Alberta for the federal government to provide CN and other railways with an essential-services designation.

Nearly 3,200 conductors and yard workers walked off the job at Canada’s largest railway to demand improved working conditions and rest breaks. The Teamsters union, which represents the workers, did not respond to questions about the farmers’ request.

Speaking on BNN Bloomberg after the end of the strike, CN chief executive Jean-Jacques Ruest said that the eight-day work stoppage pushed the limits of how long the company’s tracks could be taken offline before serious damage was done to the Canadian economy.

Mr. Ruest said at the time that the decision on whether to designate the railways an essential service should be left to the politicians. “Strictly from an economy point of view, we are very important,” he said. “This is where you need to have the balance between that and the right to negotiate.”

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The federal Labour Minister’s office did not make anyone available to comment.

Ms. Murray faced a number of questions from irritated farmers on Thursday who said that they’ve faced difficulties because of the strike. Some blamed CN for not owning enough locomotives and grain cars after years of cuts, which began under former CEO Hunter Harrison, to make the company leaner.

“He may have got a little carried away, a little leaner than many of you would have liked," Ms. Murray said of the railway’s time under Mr. Harrison. “I think there are times when companies go through a fixation with one strategy at the expense of others and we lost touch in those years with what our customers are saying.”

Mr. Harrison ran the railway for seven years before 2009. He died in 2017.

She said that with new investments in infrastructure, locomotives and grain hoppers, the railway is improving. She dismissed concerns that increasing amounts of oil being moved by train was diverting the railway’s focus away from grain farmers.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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A tentative deal has ended a week-long strike by 3,200 Canadian National Railway conductors and yard workers at Canada’s largest rail freight network. Workers will resume duties on Wednesday, ending the longest rail strike in a decade. The Globe and Mail (staff)
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