Protesters block Canada’s rail network for more than a week

A photograph of a train. There are low clouds in the background.

Protesters continue to block passenger and freight rail lines in Canada, with some protests continuing into their ninth day, Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) said Saturday.

A nine-day blockade at Canadian National’s (CN) tracks at Tyendinaga, Ontario, contributed to CN’s decision to shut down its eastern network late Thursday. The railway said the orders of the court to remove the protesters have yet to be enforced. 

Meanwhile, two blockades in Vaughan, Ontario, and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, cropped up recently, although the Vaughan protests have come to an end, while the protest in Vancouver could be coming to an end shortly, CN said Saturday.

The protests are in support of hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en nation who say the Coastal GasLink pipeline will bring environmental and cultural harm to their territory in British Columbia.

“In Vaughan, protesters put their personal safety at risk by climbing on and between railcars,” said CN CEO JJ Ruest. ‘’The protesters trespassed on active railway tracks and on active trains to hang their banners and take photos of themselves. Trespassing on railway property and tampering with railway equipment is not only illegal, but also exceedingly dangerous. A train can arrive or a railcar can move at any time. A serious and even fatal incident could be the outcome. Safety is a core value at CN and every time a breach like this occurs, we send railway experts to inspect the track and equipment for the safety of our employees and the public, which further slows the movement of goods.”

CN isn’t the only railway affected by the protesting blockades. Canada’s passenger rail VIA Rail said on Thursday that, with the exception of two lines, VIA Rail “has no other option” but to cancel all services until further notice. This is because CN, as the infrastructure owner, said it was no longer in a position to fulfill its obligations under the train service agreement between VIA Rail and CN.

“Unfortunately, service to VIA Rail and Amtrak has been discontinued across Canada. It is unsafe to allow passenger trains to start trips across our network when we have no control over where, when, or how an illegal blockade may occur. It would be irresponsible to allow the travelling public to be trapped in a blockade,” Ruest said.

Meanwhile, Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) told FreightWaves on Friday that it was monitoring the situation but it didn’t provide specifics.

CN’s decision to shut down its eastern operations could put up to 6,000 workers at CN and other rail companies out of work, said the union Teamsters Canada late Thursday.

“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,” said Teamsters Canada President François Laporte. “Our union – and thousands of working families – are in crisis. This situation cannot go on forever. We urge Ottawa to intervene to help find a solution as soon as possible.”

Government officials are saying they are working towards finding a peaceful solution to restore rail operations as quickly as possible.

“All parties must engage in open and respectful dialogue to ensure this situation is resolved peacefully. We strongly urge these parties to do so,” said Minister of Transport Marc Garneau. He also said he is “ in constant communication” with CN and CP, and is meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as with representatives of national indigenous organizations, to discuss “a way forward.”  

“We are encouraged by the progress on the blockade in New Hazelton, British Columbia. This is a positive development and we are actively working for a similar resolution on all remaining blockades,” Garneau said late Thursday.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that he spoke with Premier François Legault of Quebec about the protests and its economic impacts on businesses, farmers, passengers and communities. The two governments have formed a coordination committee to exchange information in real time so that rail operations can be restored quickly yet peacefully, Trudeau’s office said