With thousands of jobs threatened by labour unrest at the Port of Vancouver and trade slowing as uncollected containers jam Canada's busiest docks, federal and provincial leaders disagreed Wednesday on who was responsible for ending the strike.
Returning from South Korea, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was "concerned" by the strike during a stopover in Vancouver. After concluding a free-trade deal with the Pacific nation, Mr. Harper said it wasn't acceptable that Canada's main hub with Asia was being blocked by a "relatively small number of people."
While Mr. Harper said the strike fell within provincial jurisdiction, Premier Christy Clark responded that the "unacceptable" job action is almost entirely within the jurisdiction of the federal government and called on Ottawa to act.
"It is absolutely unacceptable. It poses a huge economic problem, not just for our province but for our country. It imperils thousands and thousands of jobs – what is going on at the Port of Vancouver is an issue of national significance," the Premier told reporters in Victoria.
More than 1,000 truckers have refused to work at the port since Feb. 26, citing low pay and long delays at port terminals – many truckers are paid by the load and were angry at wasting time and fuel at overloaded docks. On Monday, more than 300 unionized truckers joined picket lines at facilities across the Lower Mainland.
Union officials representing the truckers argued against Mr. Harper's characterization of those on the picket line as a minority.
Gavin McGarrigle, the B.C. director for the Unifor union, said that more than half of the 1,800 truckers registered to work at the port "have voluntarily chosen to withdraw their labour because the situation is so dire."
Road-bound container activity at the port is now down nearly 90 per cent.
While the port falls under federal jurisdiction, the strike is not aimed directly at the facility. Picket lines have been focused on some of the 180 trucking companies contracted to serve the independent operators of cargo terminals on port lands.
Last week, the federal government asked veteran labour mediator Vince Ready to conduct a review of the situation and report back by May 30.
Mr. Ready successfully mediated the last labour strife at the port in 2005, ending a six-week strike and introducing the guaranteed rates truckers now say companies are undercutting. The truckers were asked to delay their strike while Mr. Ready prepared his report, a request overwhelmingly rejected last weekend.
Because many of the complaints centre on a lack of enforcement of the rates established by the port authority, Ms. Clark refuted the claim that the provincial government could step in.
"My advice to the federal government is this: Almost all of the elements of this dispute, which are licensing and rates, lie solely within federal jurisdiction," she said. "We would like it solved today … yesterday."
Officials at the port have warned that operations will become severely curtailed before the end of the week as growing stacks of containers impede their ability to service ships. Earlier this week, sawmills across British Columbia were told that overloaded facilities could no longer accept lumber shipments.
The news of impending disruptions added worries to farmers across Western Canada, who have struggled to move a record grain harvest to Pacific ports.
During a speech to the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities on Wednesday, Premier Brad Wall said that it was time to have a national chat about potentially making all areas of grain transportation fall under essential-service rules.
With reports from Justine Hunter and Wendy Stueck