The blockade of a critical rail link between Montreal and Toronto has caused the largest disruption in Canadian National Railway Co.’s modern history, the company warned Monday, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from an emergency cabinet meeting and disclosed no plan to solve the crisis.
The federal government has committed to dialogue with First Nations to end a series of anti-pipeline protests that have sprung up on railways, bridges and highways across Canada. However, business leaders are increasing pressure on the government for a quick resolution and warn of mounting economic damage as the country’s rail network has come to a standstill across Eastern Canada.
Mr. Trudeau said on Monday morning that he’s spoken with Indigenous leaders and provincial premiers as his government works on a plan to respond to the protests.
“I understand how worrisome this is for so many Canadians and difficult for many people and families across the country. We are going to continue to focus on resolving this situation quickly and peacefully,” he told reporters.
The protests began nearly two weeks ago after the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation intensified their opposition to the construction of a $6.6-billion natural gas pipeline across British Columbia. Locals blocking the pipeline’s construction and ignoring a court order were ejected by an RCMP raid.
After the police intervention, protests sprung up across Canada. The main clash is in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario where protesters have blocked CN’s main line.
The Ontario Provincial Police so far haven’t enforced a court injunction to clear the tracks and federal ministers have shied away from a police response that they’ve warned could inflame the situation. However, CN says layoffs are imminent at companies across the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario unless the track reopens.
“We’re in Day 11 and this has been long enough now. We hope the federal government and the OPP intensify their negotiations to bring this blockade to an end in a forthwith fashion,” said Sean Finn, CN’s senior vice-president and chief legal officer.
There’s growing frustration at the railway as nearly $350-million worth of freight is being blocked daily on the company’s tracks. Along with shutting down the entire CN network across Eastern Canada, Via Rail has cancelled nearly all its trips until Wednesday. The passenger service says nearly 94,000 tickets have been annulled.
CN has warned that chemicals for water treatment plants, crude oil, perishable food, jet fuel and the cornucopia of Canadian manufacturing is stalled on rail sidings across the country.
“There’s a right in Canada to protest, but we don’t think that right extends to shutting down the backbone of the Canadian economy,” Mr. Finn said. After the protests end, he added, it could take up to a month to restore full service.
After the emergency cabinet session in Ottawa, where most of the senior ministers in Mr. Trudeau’s government were present, attention shifted to the West Coast. Carolyn Bennett, the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and her B.C. counterpart, Scott Fraser, met in Victoria and the two agreed to asking for a joint meeting with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to discuss their concerns.
“We agree that dialogue is the best and preferred way to deal with these issues," the ministers said in a joint statement. “We acknowledge that this is a difficult time for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and are determined to work with all our partners to find the solutions.”
At the blockade near Tyendinaga, demonstrators emerged from one of their camps along the CN line near Belleville, Ont., Monday afternoon to briefly speak to media. They declined to comment on Mr. Trudeau’s meeting or any other issues, except to reiterate they were both protesting against Canada’s historical mistreatment of First Nations and that they wanted to preserve nature for future generations.
Chief Donald Maracle of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte said, as he had last week, that the protesters were acting on their own and spoke for themselves. He said in a telephone interview that he was waiting for news from the federal government, as well as from Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, to understand how all parties could come to a resolution.
Supporters continued to drop by the Tyendinaga’s main camp Monday, delivering everything from coffee to a fresh pot of hamburger soup. The visitors included a family of Mohawk descent who, like the demonstrators, sought action on Indigenous rights and environmental protections. “We’re young people and it’s our future. Everything that’s happening – we’re the ones who will end up dying,” Jayden Persaud said.
Angela Lammes, who lives nearby in Milford, said she came to support her neighbours.
“We totally agree with what they’re doing,” she said, holding a sign that read “We Are All Family.” “Canada’s got to get behind them and support them,” Ms. Lammes continued.
OPP officers hung back several hundred metres from the camp near a main road, stopping by the camp twice, briefly, which they said was to check on safety. “Everything is still peaceful,” OPP spokesperson Sergeant Cynthia Savard said.
Elsewhere in Ontario, protesters had blocked the Thousand Islands Bridge for several hours midday Monday, blocking the crucial U.S. border crossing. Sgt. Savard said the bridge had reopened by midafternoon.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.