Farmers say CN strike sullied their reputations — and they want a permanent fix

Alberta's Wheat and Barley Commissions say the CN strike cost farmers their reputations in an international market. And the groups are turning to the government for a permanent fix.

The strike at the end of November lasted about a week before Canadian National Railway Co. and the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference reached an agreement. During that time, all freight operations screeched to a halt — crops, oil, potash, coal and manufactured goods didn't move.

Farmers warned the strike would be a devastating blow to the country's economy and their own pocketbooks during an already tough harvest season.

And now, across Alberta, farmers want to organize and lobby the government to consider making shipment by rail an essential service — so that it cannot be interrupted again by labour matters. 

Gary Stanford, the Alberta Wheat Commission chair, runs a family farm in Magrath, Alta.  

Stanford said he just returned from a trade mission in South America, where buyers were upset. What may have seemed like a short blip in service to most Canadians left a mark overseas. 

"Some of the grain buyers in South America said that they were concerned with sending their vessels to Vancouver, wondering if we're going to load it.," Stanford said. "Our reputation … it's very important to us and we don't want to have anything to ruin our reputation."

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

He said during the strike there was an issue with shipping, and one of the vessels wasn't quite full when it left the port. That kind of discrepancy can make Canadian grain producers seem less reliable, he said. 

And if it happens too often, Stanford worries Canadian farmers will lose their status as a major player in the world grain industry.

Alberta Barley chair Dave Bishop said his group and the Alberta Wheat Commission want to lobby the government for a solution. Both organizations believe shipping by rail should be considered akin to an essential service.

Helen Pike/CBC

"We're looking at getting some sort of resolution in place to not have this happen again," said Bishop. "However they go about it, I don't know, doesn't matter to me what they call it, as long as we don't have this issue of disrupted service again because of a labour issue."

In a statement, the labour minister's office recognized the CN strike caused significant interruptions for farmers and the agricultural sector.

"It is already a very difficult harvest season, and it is crucial that our farmers are able to get their products to market," read the statement. "Our government made important advances to the quality of rail service in the Transportation Modernization Act (Bill C-49), which is delivering a more transparent, fair, and efficient freight rail system." 

The act, which received royal assent in May 2018, introduced financial penalties for railways that fail to deliver promised rail cars for grain shipments on time. It also requires railways to publicly report each summer on their record of moving that year's grain crop, and to publish by Oct. 1 each year a winter contingency plan for keeping shipments moving regardless of weather.. 

According to the ministry's statement it is a long-term solution to help Canadian grain farmers get their products to market safely and in a timely manner.

Advisory group formed between farmers, rail company

CN has spearheaded an advisory group with farmers to hear about issues in the system, which Bishop hopes will help make transporting grain more reliable across the country.

He said it's only been a month, but for the 10 farmers in the group, it is great to be heard. He said the group gives him a better understanding of freight operations while helping CN understand farming, harvesting and some of the pressures in his industry.

"When we don't communicate, nothing can happen, really. You don't know what issues they're having and ... they don't know what issues we're having," Bishop said. "Anytime we communicate, it's a win in my mind."