Canadian carrier ‘burning candle at both ends’ during rail blockades

A protest in Canada supporting the efforts of Wet’suwet’en leaders to fight a gas pipeline.

When protesters began disrupting Canadian National’s network more than two weeks ago, Shawn Girard, CEO of Montreal-based Energy Transportation Group, told his team to prepare to find trucks and trailers for freight that normally travels by rail.

This week, the calls started pouring in to the trucking and logistics company from shippers seeking to move bulk commodities including metals to nervous factories. The company is moving plenty of alcohol and food to boot.

“We’ve been burning the candle at both ends,” Girard told FreightWaves.

The shipments extend well beyond the Toronto-Montreal freight corridor hardest hit by the shutdown of CN’s Eastern Canada network. One customer needed eight truckloads to British Columbia, Girard said.

“Volumes had been kind of stagnant recently. This really disrupted our daily routine,” he said.

The immediate fate of the disruption of Canada’s supply chains may hinge on a meeting Friday between indigenous leaders from British Columbia and protesters encamped near Canadian National’s tracks — smack in the middle of the Toronto-Montreal corridor.

Wet’suwet’en leaders are set to meet with Mohawk protesters in Ontario. The Mohawks are blocking CN’s rail lines as an act of solidarity with Wet’suwet’en leaders who oppose the route of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline through their territory.

The blockade prompted the railway to suspend all service on its Eastern Network for safety reasons. 

The meeting follows efforts by federal officials to help negotiate an end to the blockades, whose impacts on Canada’s supply chain and economy mount with each day.

Canada’s supply-chain troubles worsen

At least one major shipping line, Atlantic Container Lines, began diverting vessels from the Port of Halifax, and another, Hapag-Lloyd, is considering diversions. Termont, which operates two of the Port of Montreal Terminals, warned truckers of mounting delays because of the CN disruption.

The Outbound Tender Volume Index for Montreal on FreightWaves' SONAR platform
The volume of freight coming out of Montreal has declined since pipeline protesters began disrupting CN’s rail network in February, according to the Outbound Tender Volume Index on FreightWaves’ SONAR platform.

The blockades have hit Montreal especially hard, particularly intermodal truckload carriers. Overall trucking freight volumes have plunged since the blockades began disrupting CN’s rails more than two weeks ago, according to FreightWaves’ SONAR platform.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will discuss the blockades with the provincial premiers Thursday evening and likely will face questions about what steps his government plans to take to ensure the barricades come down.

Bill Blair, minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had offered to pull out of Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia in hopes of bringing an end to solidarity protests in multiple parts of Canada.

Provincial authorities in Ontario, like their federal counterparts, have pushed for a peaceful solution to the blockades rather than trying to remove them by force.

While the protests specifically deal with a gas pipeline’s path through Wet’suwet’en territory, they have also become a rallying point for long-standing grievances among indigenous Canadians over larger issues of sovereignty and disenfranchisement.

A recent Ipsos poll commissioned by Global News found that about two-thirds of Canadians disagree with the protests, but three-fourths believe that the government needs to take immediate action to support indigenous communities.

Girard expressed hope that the federal government will soon help bring a peaceful end to the blockades and restore normalcy to the supply chain.

“We can’t do anything about this. So until our leaders solve this issue and have the railroads back up and running, we’ll do whatever we can to get freight where it needs to be,” Girard said.