Canada’s retailers and manufacturers are braced for shutdowns and dwindling supplies as demonstrators blocked ports and rail lines, bringing much of the country’s rail-freight network to a halt.
Industry groups said on Wednesday that the protests in support of Wet’suwet’en Nation opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in Northern British Columbia have halted rail shipments of perishable food, chlorine for water treatment and raw materials for manufacturers.
At a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed concern and said Canada must balance the right to peaceful demonstration with respect for the rule of law. He said he planned to speak with cabinet ministers.
“We recognize the important democratic right, and we will always defend it, of peaceful protest,” he said. “This is an important part of our democracy in Canada. But we’re also a country of the rule of law. We need to make sure those laws are respected. That is why I will be – I am – encouraging all parties to dialogue to resolve this as quickly as possible.”
Quebec Premier François Legault said on Wednesday that the province’s greenhouse operators and other farmers face propane shortages if the confrontation continues beyond the week.
Protesters in Southeastern Ontario have blocked the Canadian National Railway Co.’s main line since Thursday while a blockade in northern British Columbia has rail traffic backed up to Saskatchewan. A new blockade popped up on the CN main line west of Winnipeg on Wednesday. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he would immediately seek a court injunction and have it enforced within days.
Protesters in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Belleville, Ont., dug in on Wednesday, the seventh day of their demonstration, refusing to abide by an injunction obtained by CN last week to have them removed from their encampment along the train tracks. They set up a second camp a few kilometres east along the same tracks.
Community members said their standoff with the rail companies is about the sovereignty of Indigenous nations and the country’s environmental integrity.
"We don’t look at it as power, we look at it as responsibility," said Tim Barnhart, a resident of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. "We’ve got a job to do. And that job is to clean up this nation."
Passenger rail is disrupted along the country’s busiest routes between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. As of Wednesday morning, Via said 223 trains have been cancelled since the Ontario blockade went up, affecting 34,000 passengers.
Protests continued in several other locations across the country. Near Montreal, protesters used a pile of snow and pallets to block a Canadian Pacific Railway line used for some cargo and regular commuter service for about 3,000 people per day. It was the third day of the blockade in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake.
“We are trying to do things in the most peaceful way we can, and we ask the same of Canada,” said Tekaronkake, one of about a dozen people occupying the tracks. A fire burned nearby while some protesters loaded supplies of water and Tim Hortons boxes into a temporary shed.
In Eastern Quebec, the members of the Listuguj Mi'gmaq nation blocked a small regional railway line used mostly to haul lumber.
B.C. Premier John Horgan expressed anger on Wednesday over anti-pipeline protests that disrupted commuters and impeded port and rail operations across the country, saying dissent has gone too far. Demonstrators blocked entranceways to the B.C. legislature on Tuesday, preventing MLAs from entering on the open day of the spring session.
Mr. Legault called for an end to the protests, but said he would rather do it “without a muscular intervention.”
CN spokesman Jonathan Abecassis said on Wednesday that Canada’s largest railway has been forced to park freight trains across its network. He repeated a warning that CN’s coast-to-coast rail system is at risk of shutting down.
The Port of Hamilton is served by CN and CP and sees about 9,000 rail cars a year, delivering vegetable oil, grain, asphalt and other goods. Larissa Fenn, spokeswoman for the port, said companies are replacing some lost rail capacity with trucks. But she said it takes three trucks to replace one rail car.
Chemical providers warned that continued delays in delivering supplies of chlorine could affect water-treatment plants for some major cities and dozens of smaller communities. They also say hand sanitizer and fluid used to de-ice airplanes will soon run out with ingredients stalled in transit.
“It’s getting very serious now,” said Cathy Campbell, president of Responsible Distribution Canada, an industry group representing chemical distribution companies. “My members serve about 15 million Canadians to make sure they have clean water... Cities are calling around frantically to get product.”
Bob Masterson, head of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said rail shippers are facing a “trifecta” of bad news: A Transport Canada order to run trains at half speed after an oil-train crash in Saskatchewan last week, railway restrictions on flammable goods and the blockades.
The blockades have halted trains on four key routes of Canada’s rail network: Edmonton to Prince Rupert, B.C., Winnipeg to Toronto, Toronto to Montreal and Montreal to the United States. “What’s left?” Mr. Masterson asked. CN “is serious when they say the system is at risk of a shutdown.”
With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa, Justine Hunter in Victoria and The Canadian Press.
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