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Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Feb. 24: A CN train makes its way down tracks cleared hours earlier by the Ontario Provincial Police. A rail crossing near Belleville, Ont., had been the site of a blockade camp in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in Northern B.C.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Small businesses and manufacturing plants will be shuttered. Store shelves will go unstocked. Chicks will freeze to death in unheated barns. Canada’s reputation among its trading partners will plummet.

This will be just some of the economic fallout of the rail blockades across Canada, industry groups warn.

There have been more than two dozen protests across Canada in the past month in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the building of the Coastal GasLink natural-gas pipeline on their traditional territories in British Columbia. Some lasted only a matter of hours before fizzling out, other locations saw intermittent disturbances, and a handful of blockades dragged on for weeks. Some obstructed relatively remote highways, while others blocked major railways or entrances to ports. Almost all of them have ended, for the moment at least.

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The blockades near New Hazelton, B.C., and Belleville, Ont., have proved most consequential for Canada’s economy because they targeted high-traffic rail lines. The impacts were felt thousands of kilometres away. Even so, economists cited the blockades as but one of multiple transitory factors dampening economic growth; the coronavirus outbreak has attracted greater concern. RBC economists predict the blockades may reduce Canada’s GDP growth by 0.2 percentage points during the first quarter of this year.

Modern supply chains are so complex that it’s difficult to imagine how they respond to such disruptions. To better understand how the blockades affected Canada’s transportation networks, The Globe and Mail scoured data from ports, railroads and other sources. Although information will continue to trickle in, the earliest data already shows significant – albeit not unprecedented – impacts rippling across the country.


After the Tyendinaga blockade is cleared on Feb. 24, OPP officers watch the first train go by from an overpass. In subsequent days, Tyendinaga protesters set small fires on the tracks and threw snowballs at trains, causing further delays.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail


Locations of anti-pipeline blockades

across Canada in February

Port

Rail

Road

Blockade type:

Yukon

B.C.

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Alta.

N.L.

Sask.

Man.

Que.

Ont.

Main

railways

0

500

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: VARIOUS NEWS REPORTS

Locations of anti-pipeline blockades across

Canada in February

Port

Rail

Road

Blockade type:

Yukon

B.C.

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

Alta.

Que.

Sask.

N.L.

Man.

Edmonton

Harcourt

Ont.

Listuguj

Saskatoon

Vancouver

and Port

Coquitlam

Moncton

Rimouski

Headingley

Truro

Main

railways

Morris

Halifax

0

500

Hamilton

KM

Toronto

Caledonia

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: VARIOUS NEWS REPORTS

Locations of anti-pipeline blockades across Canada in February

Blockade type

Yukon

Port

NWT

Rail

Nunavut

Road

B.C.

New Hazelton

Alta.

N.L.

Kamloops

and Chase

Edmonton

Man.

Que.

Sask.

Listuguj

Harcourt

Ont.

Saskatoon

Vancouver

and Port

Coquitlam

Moncton

Rimouski

Headingley

Truro

Main

railways

Sherbrooke

Halifax

Morris

Kahnawake

0

500

Hamilton

Belleville

KM

Caledonia

Toronto

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: VARIOUS NEWS REPORTS

On the tracks

Some news organizations suggested that the blockade near Belleville singlehandedly brought Canadian rail traffic to a virtual halt. That’s simply not true.

In fact, Canada’s two Class 1 freight railroads combined are carrying about the same number of carloads as last year. Fadi Chamoun, an equity analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers railroads, wrote in a note last week that “overall, the traffic performance isn’t bad.” Indeed, Canadian Pacific Railway actually carried almost 25,000 more carloads so far this year than it did during the same period last year, a 7-per-cent increase.

The toll on Canadian National Railway, the larger of the two Class 1 railroads, has been more obvious. The protests near Belleville have been particularly painful because they blocked CN’s main line running between Montreal and Toronto. As a result, cars at several major yards have been lingering longer than usual.

“Through dwell” is the average number of hours a car resides within terminal boundaries. Dwell times for CN’s entire railroad have increased slightly in recent weeks, although they remain considerably lower than they were in late November, during a strike. But it’s a different story when you look at large yards closest to the Belleville blockade – McMillan Yard, located about 20 kilometres north of Toronto, and Taschereau Yard in Montreal. Both experienced a spike in dwell times in February, as did Thornton Yard in Surrey, B.C.

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Beyond the yards, there are generally more railcars going nowhere throughout the country.

Statistics Canada reports published Friday show a spike in the number of idled cars.

The impact of those motionless cars ripples throughout the system. Because railways are moving lower volumes, for instance, grain elevators are filling up.

Quorum Corp. is an independent monitor of Canada’s grain handling system and gets data from across the grain supply chain, including railways, port terminals and shipping agents.

President Mark Hemmes said the blockades, coupled with disturbances such as landslides and washouts on major lines, has left grain silos unable to take any more grain from producers.

“They have to turn it away because they have no room left,” Mr. Hemmes said. And that’s bad news for farmers, who need the cash flow.


Vancouver, Feb. 20: Cargo ships sit at anchor in English Bay, waiting for the then-ongoing rail blockades to end so goods can be shipped to the Port of Vancouver for transport. Pro-Wet'suwet'en demonstrators also held rolling blockades of the port itself.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

At the ports

Railways serve as crucial arteries for Canada’s ports. When they’re clogged, the ports quickly seize up. One obvious symptom is more ships anchored off Vancouver.

The Port of Vancouver is Canada’s largest. It has 28 deep-sea anchorages spread across three areas: English Bay, Indian Arm and the Inner Harbour. When Vancouver runs out of space, ships drop anchor outside the port’s jurisdiction; according to the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, many larger vessels have anchored in and around the Gulf Islands for years.

Here’s what the Port of Vancouver looked like on Feb. 20.

Maxar Technologies

According to Quorum, the number of anchored ships has approximately doubled from normal levels in both Vancouver and Prince Rupert. “The last time we saw vessel lineups this high was during the 2013-14 crop year, which is probably the worst performance we’ve ever seen in our history,” Mr. Hemmes said. “They thought the sky was falling when it went to 55 [vessels] – it was horrible. And there were 54 earlier [last] week.”

Things have played out differently on the other side of the country, where some ships bypassed the Port of Halifax. Shipfax, a blog by port watcher Mac Mackay, reported Wednesday that traffic at the city’s two container piers had slowed considerably.

“On the East Coast, the ones that bypassed Halifax, they went to New York and Baltimore, Philadelphia and Hampton Roads in Virginia,” said Kevin Piper, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 269. “We lost probably 50 per cent of our volume coming through the port here.”

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With some of the larger blockades taken down, Canada’s transportation systems are showing tentative signs of recovery. But Mr. Hemmes said traffic is “not anywhere near normal” on rail lines leading to the ports in Vancouver and Prince Rupert.

Mr. Piper, meanwhile, said CN has resumed freight service into Halifax. “We’ve moving import cargo into Toronto and Chicago," he said. "But it’s going to take weeks to clear that backlog up, for sure.”

That’s if there are no further disruptions. Mr. Piper predicted there will be.

“I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams thought, when they did the initial blockade of the railway, that it would turn into this,” he said. “And now, any group that has a grievance with [any level of] government, the first frickin' place they're gonna block is a railway.”

A train rolls past a group of pro-Wet'suwet'en supporters in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory on Feb. 26.

Kate McCullough/The Globe and Mail


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