Farmers who rely on rail for shipping their harvest say blockades that have forced the stoppage of all Canadian National Railway Co. transcontinental trains could have a significant economic effect on Alberta’s agricultural industry.
“We’re seeing immediate effects already from the closures,” said Todd Hames, a grain farmer near Marwayne, about 250 kilometres east of Edmonton, who is also the chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission.
“There’s been a significant stoppage of grain movement already and if this were to continue for very many days, it will be lost capacity that’s really hard to regain. It’s like a lost day of work for the industry.”
Blockades set up by demonstrators have halted the movement of more than 300 freight trains since Feb. 6. The protesters are forming the blockades in solidarity with northwestern British Columbia’s Wet’suwet’en First Nation, whose hereditary chiefs oppose the Coastal GasLink project that crosses through their traditional territory.
The barricades, set up in Ontario and British Columbia, led CN Rail to start a “progressive and orderly shutdown of its Eastern Canadian network,” according to a statement posted to the railway operator’s website Thursday.
For farmers, the news compounds a difficult few months that saw an eight-day CN Rail strike in November, an extended January cold spell and recent heavy rain that delayed rail movement and the loading of grain vessels in Vancouver. In all, it’s led to a backlog that has dozens of ships waiting to be loaded in Vancouver, with another eight sitting idle in Prince Rupert.
“That early strike was certainly a factor, and they’ve had to catch up on supply. It seemed like they were catching up on it, but cold weather has had an effect, especially with the amount of snow on the mountains,” said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. “Saying (the backlog) is all on the protesters isn’t telling the whole story, but it will have an effect on us.”
If the interruptions continue for an extended period of time, the economic effect could be dramatic, Hames said, arguing that those effects could be felt internationally if Canada fails to ship its product to other markets.
“It causes a loss of confidence in Canada and our competitive environment in Canada because we’re exporting a lot of grain around the world,” he said. “Our customers really like the quality of our product but they need to be assured that they’ll get it when they ask for it.
“Any sort of blip in the system causes our international customers to be concerned about purchasing Canadian grain.”
The concerns extend beyond Alberta’s agricultural industry and to manufacturers across the province, says Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters president and CEO Dennis Darby.
“It has an effect everywhere, and Alberta will be affected as well, because manufacturers in Eastern Canada are often building equipment and parts they need out West,” Darby said. “I think it’s an economic imperative that we get this resolved. We sometimes take for granted that our integrated supply chain in Canada, and also north-to-south, relies on rail.”
In addition to the CN Rail closures, Via Rail is putting a temporary halt on its passenger services nationwide. The passenger train service runs mostly on CN Rail track.
The railway operator also said the shutdowns could lead to temporary layoffs, with Teamsters Canada, the union representing CN Rail workers, saying 6,000 employees at CN and other rail companies could be left without a job.
“These blockades are having a catastrophic impact on ordinary, working-class Canadians who have nothing to do with the Coastal GasLink pipeline,” Teamsters Canada president François Laporte said Thursday.
“Hundreds of our members have been out of work close to week. Now up to 6,000 of our members risk not being able to support their families or make ends meet this month, and they are powerless to do anything about it.”
A blockade in Manitoba was taken down Thursday, but ones in Belleville, Ont., and New Hazelton, B.C., remain.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller offered Thursday to meet with three Indigenous leaders in Ontario as the federal government seeks a solution to the rail blockades.
Tyendinaga Mohawk Chief Donald Maracle says he expects the meeting will take place but he can’t comment on the blockade because it wasn’t initiated by council.
A meeting is also expected to take place between the B.C. government and Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Data from the Angus Reid Institute shows that roughly two in five Canadians support Wet’suwet’en solidarity protesters, while 51 per cent support the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline.
However, despite the protests, few Canadians expect the project to be stopped, with 57 per cent believing the pipeline will be built with some delays and another 34 per cent saying they’re confident construction will push forward as planned despite the demonstrations.
— With files from The Canadian Press