As VIA, CN shut down, union joins call for end to rail blockades

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OTTAWA — Freight and passenger traffic on a large part of the Canadian rail system are at a standstill today as groups protesting the construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia continue to block rail lines from coast to coast.

On Thursday, Canadian National announced it was shutting down all of its operations in eastern Canada, from Ontario to the Maritimes, and VIA Rail announced it was suspending all passenger service across the country. “VIA Rail has no other option but to cancel most of its services until further notice,” the passenger railroad announced late Thursday. There is no estimate for when service would resume. [See “CN begins ‘progressive shutdown’ in Eastern Canada,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 13, 2020.]

At the center of the issue is a proposed 416-mile pipeline across the Wet'suwet'en land in northern British Columbia. Coastal GasLink has said it has reached deals with a number of landowners, including the Wet'suwet'en tribal government, to build the pipeline. However, the tribe’s hereditary chiefs have opposed the pipeline and say the tribal government does not have the authority to deal with GasLink. For more than a week, supporters of the Wet'suwet'en have been blocking critical transportation links like rail lines, roads and seaports.

On Thursday, CN CEO JJ Ruest called the situation “regrettable.”

The blockades have also impacted Canadian Pacific. On Thursday, a blockade on CP in the Vancouver area forced the cancellation of West Coast Express commuter service.

Officials with Teamsters Canada, the country’s largest transportation labor union representing more than 16,000 railroaders, have urged government officials to end the blockades. The union says some railroaders could be laid off if the situation goes on much further.

“These blockades are having a catastrophic impact on ordinary, working-class Canadians who have nothing to do with the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Hundreds of our members have been out of work close to week. Now up to 6,000 of our members risk not being able to support their families or make ends meet this month, and they are powerless to do anything about it,” says Teamsters Canada President François Laporte.

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