Businesses ramped up pressure Tuesday on the federal government to end blockades by protesters opposed to the B.C. Coastal GasLink development amid reports of choking ports and factories reaching a critical stage of paralysis.
A coalition of business groups and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters issued calls for an immediate end to the shutdown of CN’s main line through Ontario after two weeks of blockades. CME president Dennis Darby also called for a government relief program to compensate workers and businesses that have lost money in the protest. He did not specify an amount.
“We need real action at this point to solve the crisis,” Mr. Darby said. “We’re at a standstill. The blockade must end and rail service has to be restored as soon as possible.”
As of Tuesday, CN has temporarily laid off about 450 workers in Montreal, Halifax, Moncton and Charny, Que., CN spokesman Alexandre Boulé said. CN, Canada’s largest freight carrier, has cancelled 400 trains since the blockades began.
For the past two weeks, several groups of protesters have blocked railways across Canada in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ opposition to the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in B.C. The disruptions are raising fears of shortages of critical commodities, including propane for home heating and chemicals for water treatment.
Curtis Frank, president of Maple Leaf Foods, said millions of dollars worth of meat is stuck in transit, putting at risk a billion-dollar annual business shipping pork and poultry products across North America and to Asia. “These perishable products are moved by rail,” Mr. Frank said, noting his company employs 12,000 people. “Please allow me to emphasize the word perishable. Timely access to transportation is absolutely critical.”
Ports reported logistical headaches owing to rail paralysis. In Halifax, officials say they’re running out of space to stack shipping containers, but the bigger concern is that vessels may begin to avoid the port altogether. “The longer this drags on, the more this hurts our reputation as an efficient and reliable gateway port,” said Halifax Port Authority spokesman Lane Farguson.
In Saint John, shipping terminals that handle bulk materials such as potash and scrap metal intended for overseas markets have nearly ground to a standstill. “The potash terminal hasn’t seen a rail car since Friday. There’s not a lot getting through,” said Paula Copeland, director of communications for Port Saint John, the third-largest bulk materials port in Canada. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters in Quebec City that the Port of Montreal is a couple days away from having to turn away ships because of the backup of rail traffic; however, a port official said they are not reaching such a critical stage. The multimodal nature of the port allows it to move containers to different locations by truck to clear space. “But it could get more complex from a logistical point of view if the situation carries on for a good while yet,” Port of Montreal spokeswoman Mélanie Nadeau said.
Atlantic Canadian companies that rely on rail to deliver propane are rationing. Halifax’s Wilson Fuel is half-filling customers’ tanks, while one of the province’s largest users of propane, Acadian Seaplants, says it switched to light oil to process seaweed into a range of food, agricultural and chemical products. That change has increased costs by more than 60 per cent, the company said.
“It is unacceptable that a small group of citizens may choose to ignore the decisions of our courts and have such an economic impact throughout the country,” said Jean-Paul Deveau, Acadian Seaplants’ president and chief executive.
A group of business lobby groups urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an open letter to end the blockades and restore rail service by working with the provinces, Indigenous leaders and police. The group, whose members include representative of ports, fertilizer makers and retailers, warned every day the rail lines are closed takes another three to four days for supply chains to bounce back.
Amid the slowdown, Via Rail says it will resume running passenger trains Thursday between Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City, in addition to service to parts of southern Ontario from Toronto after getting clearance from CN, which owns the tracks.
Brad Cicero, a spokesman for Porter Airlines, said the carrier based at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport has seen increased demand for seats amid the halt to Via’s passenger routes. “It’s higher than normal for this time of year,” Mr. Cicero said. “We’ve certainly seen that over the course of the disruption.”
Rohit Bhardwaj, chief financial officer of ChemTrade Logistics Inc., said the maker of chemicals for water treatment and industrial uses is “very close” to being forced to close factories. “The chemicals come to our plants by rail and then we produce the water treatment chemicals and typically ship that by truck. But the problem is if you don’t get the raw materials coming in then we are unable to produce those chemicals,” Mr. Bhardwaj said. “Trucks are not a viable option. It has to be rail.”
Protests that halted trains at the Montreal-based railway’s MacMillan yard north of Toronto over the weekend were gone by Tuesday, and work at the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C., was resuming after the end of protests affecting traffic, Mr. Boulé said, adding the situation can change quickly.
Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., has seen its line blockaded in Kahnawake, south of Montreal, but largely escaped the disruption faced by its larger rival.
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