St. Lawrence Seaway strike concerns politicians, stakeholders in Hamilton and Niagara

Click to play video: 'How the St. Lawrence Seaway strike could affect Canada’s economy'
How the St. Lawrence Seaway strike could affect Canada’s economy
In Quebec, hundreds of St. Lawrence Seaway workers have walked off the job, bringing one of Canada's most important marine shipping routes to a standstill. Mike Armstrong explains what the union and employer can't agree on, how much this strike is costing the Canadian economy each day, and which industries are greatly affected – Oct 23, 2023

A joint statement from four Niagara mayors highlighted the importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway, saying that the strike could stifle supply lines and potentially harm economies in the region and beyond.

The note was a plea for both sides of the disruption to get back to bargaining citing a vital need for continuing operations that support $12 billion of trade coming through the artery between Montreal and Lake Erie.

“The Seaway connects some of the largest inland markets and consumers to the world,” St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe said in the release.

“A swift and fair contract settlement will ensure our community remains a priority for continued employment and reinvestment.”

The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (GLSDC) says about 360 unionized employees are currently on strike, and have been without a contract since March 31.

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A Hamilton, Ont., port authority spokesperson says several vessels at berth or at anchor remain where they are for the time being while vessels due for arrival can’t get to port to load or unload cargo.

“Which will begin to cause ripples through important Ontario supply chains, like construction, steel making, manufacturing, and agriculture,” Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority’s (HOPA) Larissa Fenn confirmed.

HOPA estimates about $4 billion worth of cargo goes through the Port of Hamilton each year, equating to about 10 million tonnes product and materials.

Domestic ship operator Algoma Central said many of its boats are docked abroad and awaiting to haul iron ore to Hamilton mills to be turned into steel for the auto industry.

Of particular concern is grain exports which Fenn says the local port of Hamilton is the largest gateway for Ontario-grown grain.

“The port terminals are intended to get ships loaded and moving efficiently, not to stockpile vast quantities of grain, so that would be a significant challenge for Ontario’s agri-food exporters,” she suggested.

Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents around 28,000 barley, corn, oat, soybean, and wheat farmers, urged the Canadian government to ensure grain continues to flow through the St. Lawrence Seaway despite the strike.

“This is a crucial time for the grain harvest in Ontario and the closure of the St. Lawrence Seaway could mean that, in a matter of days, many farmers will have nowhere to deliver grain to and we risk the grain staying on the field too long to be viable,” Grain Farmers chair Brendan Byrne said.

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Byrne says about six million tonnes of grain flow through the Seaway annually with between 600,000 and 700,000 tonnes in an average month moving across Canada, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and more.

Last year, roughly $16.7 billion worth of cargo passed through the Seaway —  a system of locks, canals and channels that stretches more than 300 kilometres.

Close to 200 million tonnes of cargo move along the “marine highway” between the Atlantic and Great Lakes every year.

A recent analysis from U.S. firm Martin Associates estimated 66,600 jobs and $12 billion in economic activity was connected to Seaway activity in 2022.

Eight of the 15 locks are situated in the Welland Canal in Niagara Region and the GLSDC estimates 3,000 ships with 36 million tonnes of cargo pass through each year.

In all, 13 of the 15 locks on the Seaway were closed to traffic as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC.)

Ontario supply chain expert Fraser Johnson of the Ivey Business School at Western University suggests consumers worried about Christmas shopping probably shouldn’t since cargo through the Seaway is markedly different from what was tied to British Columbia’s ports dispute earlier this year.

“So 75 per cent of the tonnage that moves through the St Lawrence Seaway system are actually agricultural products or mine products,” Johnson explained.

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“So grains, iron ore, salt and coal, there are some finished or processed products that move through.”

He says the estimated 25 per cent of remaining goods moving are things like steel and petroleum products.

Johnson says marine transport in North America is “by far and away” the least expensive, most efficient and sustainable way of shipping cargo.

A work stoppage diverting cargo onto roadways not only creates more traffic but has economic impacts in terms of the cost of travel, he said.

For consumers, the most likely impact would be seen on basic grocery items in terms of availability and pricing.

“What you have to worry about, at least in the short term … is food processors like the grocery chains having to make alternate arrangements in terms of shipping product here,” Johnson revealed.

“Ultimately, these higher costs do ripple through the supply chain and lead to higher prices for consumers.”

The federal government has instructed workers and management in the St. Lawrence Seaway strike to sit down with a mediator this Friday and hash out their differences.

— with files from the Canadian Press

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