N.B. manufacturers anxious for end of rail blockades

Industry groups in New Brunswick are adding their voices to the chorus of those calling on the federal government to bring an end to the blockades that have paralyzed much of Canada's rail system.

Ron Marcolin, divisional vice-president for the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, and Forest NB executive director Mike Legere say their members have been hit hard by the blockades established in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs in northern British Columbia.

The groups are calling on Ottawa to bring an end to the situation, which has reached the two-week mark.

"We're not dismissing at all what the issues are around the blockades, but most importantly for our members, it's an economic concern," Marcolin said.

His association, with the support of about two dozen companies, lobbied the federal government to take "immediate action" to resolve the situation, saying with each passing day about $425 million worth of manufactured goods sit idle.

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J.D. Irving Ltd. is among the supporting businesses.

"The current loss of CN service is a major disruption to consumers as well as industries looking to receive supplies and ship products made by Canadians to valued customers," said Mary Keith, JDI vice-president of communications. "We encourage all involved to quickly find a way forward."

CN Rail has shuttered its eastern Canadian operations and given temporary layoff notices to 450 workers. Via Rail did the same for 875 workers this week with much of its passenger rail network shut down. 

Shipments stalled

Marcolin said the CN closure has affected a "wide variety" of New Brunswick businesses, disrupting the supply chain needed to make and export goods. 

For example, Marcolin said, potash produced in Saskatchewan is shipped by rail across the country to the Saint John port where it's shipped to buyers overseas. 

"The buyers of the potash that leaves the port of Saint John have other options," he said. "They can go to other countries around the world if Canada can't get its potash to tide water."

The manufacturers association wants federal leaders to engage in direct dialogue with the Wet'suwet'en leaders and find a timely solution.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he's prepared to send senior cabinet ministers to meet with Indigenous protesters to negotiate an end to the blockades, while Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett has offered for the second time to meet with the hereditary chiefs.

"We're working very hard to end the blockades. It's an unacceptable situation," Trudeau said.

There are supporters in New Brunswick who stand in solidarity with the hereditary chiefs. Demonstrations have been held, including outside Fredericton City Hall where a group of 50 people called for the RCMP and the pipeline company to stand down and vacate Wet'suwet'en territory.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline is part of a $40-billion project that would move natural gas extracted from northeastern B.C. to the proposed LNG Canada facility in Kitimat, where the gas would be liquefied and shipped overseas.

Ron Tremblay, grand chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council, said in late January there have been similar conflicts with the New Brunswick provincial government on projects in Wolastoqey territory, such as the Mount Carleton Provincial Park snowmobile hub and the Sisson mine project.

"There's a very, very strong connection, it's that the federal and provincial governments refuse to recognize the hereditary and the traditional chief systems," said Tremblay.

"We want to educate the masses about what's really going on in this country and that we are here not as protesters but as protectors and a voice for the future generations to preserve and protect water, earth and air and for all of life to continue."

Trade reputation at stake

Marcolin said trucking isn't a suitable alternative to rail because it can't match the volume railcars carry and the trucking industry is dealing with a shortage of drivers.

He said when the blockades are lifted it will take two to four weeks to bring shipments back to normal. 

Legere said it will take a week for Forest NB manufacturers to work through the backlog of inventory. 

"Our industry and undoubtedly that of other manufacturing sectors are facing a serious situation with regard to the ability to ship finished products to market and receive essential input materials to produce our products," Legere said in a release issued Thursday.

"Thousands of jobs and purchase contracts are now in jeopardy if this disruption of rail and port service should continue beyond next week."

Both Legere and Marcolin raised concerns for the long-term effect the disruption will have on Canada's reputation as a dependable international trade partner.