Pipeline protests could shut down portions of Canadian National’s network

A photograph of a train traveling on a track. There is snow on the ground.

Blockades of protesters supporting a First Nations group’s concerns over a proposed pipeline route have been blocking passenger and freight rail lines to ports and other areas of Canada.

The blockades, some of which have been occurring for six days, according to local news reports, could force Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) to shut down “significant parts of its Canadian network imminently,” the railway said Tuesday.

As a result of the blockades, Canadian National (CN) has obtained court injunction orders for two blocked locations, and the railway is working with local enforcement agencies to enforce the orders.

The railway said the blockades are near Belleville, Ontario, CN’s only eastern link between western and eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest, and also on CN’s northern mainline in British Columbia (BC) between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

CN said the blockades are unrelated to CN’s activities but that the blockades have halted both passenger and freight traffic. The railway expressed concern Tuesday that the blockades could harm Canada’s reputation as a stable and viable supply chain partner.

“We are currently parking trains across our network, but due to limited available space for such, CN will have no choice but to temporarily discontinue service in key corridors unless the blockades come to an end,” said CEO JJ Ruest.

Ruest continued, “Intermodal containers carrying perishable goods including food and consumer items, Canadian grain, deicing fluid at airports, construction materials, propane to Quebec and Atlantic Canada, natural resources creating rural jobs across Canada such as lumber, aluminum, coal and propane; all of these commodities are already impacted and will see their movements even more diminished. Factories and mines will be soon faced with very difficult decisions. The Port of Prince Rupert is effectively already shut down. The Ports of Montreal and Halifax are also already feeling the impact of these blockades which will have a trickle-down effect on consumer goods in the next few weeks.”

Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) has also been impacted by the blockades. The railway said in a statement that it “continues to monitor the situation closely, in close collaboration with key stakeholders.”

Passenger rail provider VIA Rail said the routes between Montreal and Toronto and between Ottawa and Toronto don’t have trains running because of the blockade near Belleville, according to a Tuesday morning update. The company is providing refunds for reservations on these segments.

The protesters have said in local news reports that their actions are in support of a First Nations group’s concerns over the environmental and cultural impacts of a proposed pipeline route in BC.

Last Thursday, the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs of BC filed an application for a judicial review of a decision by the BC Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) to extend the environmental certificate for Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) proposed fracked gas pipeline in Northwest BC by another five years.

The pipeline would be 670 kilometers (416 miles) long and deliver natural gas from the Dawson Creek area to a facility near Kitimat, where LNG Canada would turn it into liquefied natural gas for export.

The Wet’suwet’en Nation contends that CGL has been noncompliant with its permit in over 50 instances and that the company has failed to incorporate the recent findings of a report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The findings suggest that there is a correlation between increased assaults of area women and the creation of work camps that are organized around the construction of a natural resource project. 

“This case is about questioning the integrity of the environmental assessment process. In recommending that CGL be granted a project extension of five years, the EAO failed in its legislated duty to properly consider the facts, abdicated its responsibility to interrogate newly identified potential harms of this project and has made a decision that is unjustified and unjustifiable,” said Caily DiPuma of Woodward and Co., legal counsel for the Wet’suwet’en. “Public confidence in the administration of BC’s environmental assessment system requires that the EAO be held to account for its failings.”

CGL President David Pfeiffer said he had reached out unsuccessfully to the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs multiple times to address their issues.

“It is disappointing that the Hereditary Chiefs sought to have our legal permits rescinded by the provincial government. We are grateful to the province for their commitment to our project and for their respect for the six years of exceptional effort expended to achieve not only our permits but also the support of our 20 partner Indigenous communities, local communities and the public who recognize the benefits our project will deliver,” Pfeiffer said last Thursday.

“This is not the outcome we wanted. We have made exceptional efforts to resolve this blockade through engagement and dialogue. Over the past month and over many years, we’ve reached out to the Hereditary Chiefs, over and over, but to no avail. It’s truly unfortunate that we were unable to find a path forward that allowed for the construction of Coastal GasLink with the support of all,” he said.