Canada stalled as blockades shut down rail networks and the movement of goods and people

Canada stalled as blockades shut down rail networks and the movement of goods and people
EDMONTON AND TORONTO — As protests that have stalled railway traffic across parts of Canada drag towards a week, CN Rail announced it would be shutting down “significant” portions of its rail network, raising questions about the stability of Canada’s transport system and concerns about the enforcement of court orders putting an end to the protests.

In a Tuesday statement, the rail shipper, which operates some 30,000 kilometres of rail across Canada and the U.S., said a variety of shipments — food, construction materials, lumber, aluminum, coal and propane — have been affected by the rail blockades just east of Belleville, Ont., and in New Hazelton, B.C.

Near Belleville, members of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory have parked a large dump truck with a plough along the tracks. The protests have stopped Via Rail passenger trains as well as CN trains, cutting off routes between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Kingston.

Protestors delayed the start of the spring session of the B.C. legislature by physically blocking access to the B.C. Legislature building in Victoria on Tuesday.

The protests, which began on Thursday, are in solidarity with the five hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who opposed a pipeline project that partially crosses their traditional territory in the B.C. interior.

In an emailed statement, CN warned that the blockades could have a spillover effect to ports in Halifax, Montreal and Prince Rupert, as blockades in Ontario and British Columbia have cut off main CN lines.

“The impact is also being felt beyond Canada’s borders and is harming the country’s reputation as a stable and viable supply chain partner,” the statement said.

But, in statements to the Post, neither the Montreal Port Authority nor the Halifax Port Authority seemed overly concerned at the moment.

“So far, we have had little major impact on the movement of goods, as we are served by two other major networks: CP and trucking,” said an emailed statement from Mélanie Nadeau, director of communications at the Montreal port.

Of course, that could change. Lane Ferguson, a spokesperson with the Halifax Port Authority, said it was “too early” to say what “the specific impact” of the protests could be. He suggested there could be problems if the storage yards in Halifax fill up or if products can’t be transported out by rail. If those things occur, international importers might avoid the port altogether.

“A partial or complete port shutdown would be devastating to the reputation of the Port of Halifax as an efficient and reliable international gateway,” Ferguson wrote in an email. “It would also impact confidence in the stability and reliability of the Canadian supply chain.”

Brad Cicero, a spokesperson for Porter Airlines, a short-haul carrier, said it has seen an uptick in passengers along its Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor that’s more than would normally be expected this time of year.

Key to the affair is whether or not police enforce court injunctions to clear out the protesters in Belleville, Ont. and New Hazelton, B.C. As yet, that has not happened, although police in other parts of the country — including those blocking Vancouver and Delta ports and the Wet’suwet’en protesters in interior B.C. — have made arrests.

The RCMP began moving into Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting land defenders last Thursday.

On Tuesday, Marc Garneau, the Liberal transport minister, called the blockades “illegal” but said the federal government would not do anything. It’s up to the provinces, Garneau said, to enforce the court orders.

“The government of Canada is seized of the issue. We’d like to resolve it as quickly as possible, but it’s a complex issue. Hopefully we’ll resolve it as quickly as possible,” Garneau told reporters.

Previous instances where Indigenous protesters have blocked rail lines have led to crises in the rule of law. In December, 2012, an Ontario judge issued a court order that First Nations protesters blocking a CN spur line in Sarnia, Ont., be cleared out.

Police did nothing until January 2013.

“We seem to be drifting into dangerous waters in the life of the public affairs of this province when courts cannot predict, with any practical degree of certainty, whether police agencies will assist in enforcing court injunctions against demonstrators,” wrote David Brown, who now sits on the Ontario Court of Appeal.

On Tuesday, Bill Dickson, a spokesperson for the Ontario Provincial Police, said “the situation is unchanged” and that police were aware there was an injunction, and they’d read it to protesters. He declined to speculate on what else police might do.

“The hope for the resolution is that through dialogue and through discussion, the individuals will back away from the rail line and allow the trains to move again,” Dickson said.

Jason Kenney, the Premier of Alberta, expressed his concerns on Twitter: “It’s about time that our authorities demonstrated that Canada is a country that respects the rule of law. Allowing mob rule to override the express democratic wishes of First Nations is unacceptable, and it has to end,” he wrote on Tuesday

A November 2019 rail strike could provide some insight into what effect the rail stoppage could have on the economy, said Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO. How long the delays go on, Porter explained, would determine just what the economic consequences might be.

“That strike lasted just over a week and was national, and clipped GDP by less than 0.1 percent that month,” Porter said in an email.

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