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After nine days of anti-pipeline rail blockades, a large swath of Canada’s railway system has ground to a halt.
Now, companies caught in the middle of the dispute between governments and Indigenous protests are calling for lawmakers to resolve the blockades quickly. Rail is a crucial economic artery in Canada, and with every passing day industry says it becomes exponentially harder for the Canadian economy to recover from the shutdown.
“It’s situation critical,” said Derek Nighbor, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, which represents wood, pulp and paper producers who do much of their shipping by rail.
The protests were sparked last week after RCMP in northern B.C. began arresting Wet’suwet’en Nation members who were blocking a controversial pipeline project.
The Wet’suwet’en put out a call for supporters to “shut down Canada” in response. And in large numbers across the country, they did. In addition to the railway blockades, solidarity demonstrations choked highways, ports, bridges and the B.C. Legislature in Victoria.
One solidarity blockade set up by the Mohawks of Tyendinaga near Belleville, Ont. — along a crucial rail line connecting Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal — led CN Rail to cancel all rail shipments to most of eastern Canada. The union representing CN workers has warned that thousands of employees could be temporarily laid off.
And the longer the blockades go on, the more the backlog of product and the longer it will take to get industry back to normal, Nighbour said.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is set to meet with the Mohawk chiefs Saturday morning, while other federal officials seek meetings with the leaders of other protests. But it’s not clear how quickly the disputes could be resolved.
Here are a few of the things that aren't moving.
Chlorine to treat drinking water
Chlorine is often — but not always — transported by rail. And if the blockages don’t clear soon, one chlorine producer is warning it may have to shut down, CTV reports.
If the Wet'suwet'en solidarity rail blockades can't be resolved, industry is warning of widespread shortages of products like propane and chemicals used to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, lumber and wheat aren't making it to market.
The chemical can also be transported by road. The City of Toronto, for example, uses truck deliveries. But without shipments, cities could run out of it in a week, said the company, Olin Corp.
Not only have lumber mills been struggling to get the fuels and chemicals they need to operate, the wood, pulp and paper industry is also unable to get its product to market.
Producers have been scrambling to get trucks or find storage as their product piles up, unable to ship out, Nighbour said. But if the pressure isn’t relieved soon, some companies are in the “red zone” and may need to resort to layoffs.
“People are trying to MacGyver solutions here,” he added. “These workers tend to be rural, northern, smaller-community, hard-working families… They’re the ones who are going to face temporary layoffs.”
Before the rail blockades choked grain producers’ ability to move their products to ports to be shipped abroad, the industry in Western Canada had already been through a hard couple of months. After a difficult “harvest from hell” that farmers said was more difficult because the carbon tax drove up the price of propane needed to dry out crops, the grain industry was also hampered by a rail strike in November, said the chair of Grain Growers of Canada, Jeff Nielsen.
“We’re a very resilient bunch,” Nielsen said. “But we’re caught behind. You can never catch up.”
Though this hurts grain producers’ ability to meet their current contracts and get paid now, it also may hurt them long-term, he added.
Dozens of ships are waiting empty at ports in B.C., the product meant to fill them unable to reach its destination due to a rail blockade in the north of the province, Nielsen said. Though the Gitxsan leaders driving the blockade have paused it to meet with federal and provincial officials, Nielsen said he worries that the Canadian grain industry’s international customers may start seeing producers here as unreliable.
“It may not be as good as ours, but that other country that’s exporting it may be better able to deliver it than we can,” he said.
The supply of propane in the Maritimes could run out in a matter of days, the Canadian Propane Association said Friday. Most of the region’s propane, used to heat homes and businesses, is typically delivered by rail.
The region currently has about five days before its supply starts to get low, the association said. The same situation happened last November during a CN Rail strike that halted trains for a week.
Groceries and household items
In a joint statement, Retail Council of Canada and Food & Consumer Products Canada warned Friday that shortages could soon hit grocery store shelves. Though major cities would be impacted, smaller communities would feel it even more, the statement says.
The issue would extend to produce, baby formula, fire alarms and cleaning supplies used to stop the spread of germs, the statement says.
“While we support the right to peaceful protest, we also believe strongly in the rule of law and that where injunctions are issued, they must be followed and if need be, enforced by public authorities,” the statement read.
“We call upon all levels of government involved to take the steps necessary to get rail freight moving again, so that we can deliver on our vital role in providing Canadians with the groceries and products that they need in their daily lives.”