Talks scheduled to end rail blockades, restore passenger and freight service

Talks scheduled to end rail blockades, restore passenger and freight service
TORONTO -- Anti-pipeline protests that have derailed vital freight movement in eastern Ontario and passenger rail travel across Canada are continuing Friday, with the added threat of activists planning to shut down government offices in British Columbia s capital.

Meetings are scheduled between Indigenous leaders and federal ministers who are looking to negotiate an end to the rail blockades in eastern Ontario and B.C., while business leaders and opposition are calling for immediate action to end the disruptions, which have already seen dozens of arrests.

The protests began last week after the RCMP enforced a court injunction against Indigenous leaders and their supporters who had been halting construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, a major piece of a $40-billion LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export project on the B.C. coast.

The 670-kilometre pipeline crosses the traditional territories of the Wet suwet en First Nation.

Indigenous leaders in B.C. s northwest have invited federal and B.C. politicians to meetings, while following through on a promise to ensure a blockade of CN Rail tracks near New Hazelton, B.C. would come down during talks.

The blockade had been in place since Saturday, preventing shipments to the Port of Prince Rupert.

Gitxsan hereditary chief Norm Stephens says the blockade could go back up if the province doesn t agree to cancel Coastal GasLink s pipeline permit during the scheduled talks.

Demonstrators who are blocking tracks near Belleville, Ont., a critical corridor linking Montreal and Ottawa with Toronto, say they re standing with those opposed to the pipeline.

A court injunction has been granted in Ontario that gives the OPP authority to clear the protesters, but as yet no enforcement action has been taken.

Canadian National Railway said Thursday it was starting a progressive shutdown in its eastern freight network due to the blockade, while Via Rail cancelled all service on CN tracks in Canada.

Only two northern Via routes Sudbury-White River and Churchill-The Pas will remain open.

Passengers with bookings will receive automatic refunds, and the company will not accept any new bookings before Feb. 21.

In addition to being a major inconvenience to passengers, the disruptions will cause a huge economic hit. The shutdown by CN is largely seen as a move to pressure Ottawa to take action.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the rule of law must be followed and federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau has previously called the blockades "illegal," the federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach, saying enforcing injunctions against protesters is a provincial responsibility.

Garneau is expected to meet Friday with his provincial and territorial counterparts as well as representatives of national Indigenous organizations to discuss a way forward. He is scheduled to speak at a press conference at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, the B.C. Supreme Court granted an injunction Thursday that authorizes police to arrest and remove people participating in any further blockades at the legislature building in Victoria. Hundreds of people blocked the entrances to the legislature earlier this week in support of pipeline protests.

There are signs the protests are intensifying.

Hundreds of people marched in an anti-pipeline protest late Thursday afternoon through downtown Saskatoon and as the New Hazelton blockade was coming down, another was going up near the Pitt River bridge in Coquitlam. As a result, B.C.s TransLink announced Friday morning that the West Coast Express service will not run, and will be replaced by buses.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is demanding that Ottawa provide clarity on future resource development applications, saying the rail blockades show there needs to be a better process.

Pallister made the remarks after an anti-pipeline blockade of a major rail line west of Winnipeg came down. Activists have promised that more protests are coming.

As the turmoil continues, TC Energy, which is building the $6.2-billion pipeline that will take liquefied natural gas from northeastern B.C. to an export terminal now under construction in Kitimat, is proceeding with work at more than 30 sites.

The economic impact of the rail disruption has yet to be fully felt.

CN says the halt may lead to temporary layoffs for eastern Canadian staff and the Teamsters Union, which represents 16,000 works in the rail industry, warns that 6,000 works could be affected.

CN moves $250 billion a year in goods and the shutdown will affect a variety of products, including propane, jet fuel and de-icing chemicals, chlorine for drinking water, and aluminum and lumber needed in the construction industry.
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