The federal government is resisting calls to intervene in a railway strike despite the spectre of a propane shortage in Quebec and rising pressure from premiers and CEOs across the country to reconvene Parliament ahead of schedule and legislate the 3,200 Canadian National Railway Co. employees back to work.
“We realize how important this is to the economy of our country, to have a railway system that functions,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters after the new government’s first cabinet meeting in Ottawa on Thursday afternoon. “We want this strike to end as soon as possible.”
“For us it’s an appreciation of the collective bargaining process,” said Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, noting Ottawa’s chief mediator was at the negotiating table in Montreal.
The minister — named to the labour portfolio 24 hours earlier — said she would be reaching out personally to both sides in the next two days.
Bargaining was continuing around the clock, “but there’s been no significant progress on the key health and safety issues that we’ve raised,” Christopher Monette, a spokesman for the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, told The Canadian Press on Thursday afternoon.
The strike at CN Rail has left Quebec with fewer than five days before it runs out of propane, said Premier Francois Legault, who warned of an “emergency” that could wreak havoc at hospitals, nursing homes and farms.
The premier expressed hope for a settlement between the railway and the union, but called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the opposition parties to pass back-to-work legislation if necessary ahead of Parliament’s scheduled return on Dec. 5.
Quebec has already started to ration propane, narrowing its use to less than half the typical six million litres per day, Legault said. The province has about 12 million litres in reserve.
“We started to make choices,” he said Thursday, two days after train conductors hit the picket lines. “That means we have enough for four days, four-and-a-half days.”
Priority has been given to health centres and retirement residences that rely on propane heating as well as farms, which use it to dry grain and heat barns and greenhouses.
“We could lose a lot of animals, a lot of food. We’re in an emergency,” Legault told reporters in Quebec City. “Honestly we can’t draw out this strike for a long time.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said Ottawa should signal it is willing “to take swift and urgent action” such as enacting a back-to-work bill. While binding arbitration could avert the need for the legislation, “we’re talking hours now, not days,” he told reporters Thursday.
Moe said he’s spoken to Garneau and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland about the toll the strike will take on jobs and profits in agriculture, energy and mining.
Alberta’s energy and agriculture ministers have gone slightly further, unconditionally asking Trudeau to reconvene Parliament and pass a back-to-work law.
Canadian Propane Association CEO Nathalie St-Pierre says that six-hour truck lines for propane have already formed in Sarnia, Ont.
“It’s having a huge impact. We’re very concerned, because propane infrastructure relies heavily on rail,” St-Pierre told The Canadian Press. “There’s no pipeline that brings propane to Quebec.”
About 85 per cent of the province’s propane comes via rail, the bulk of it from refineries in Sarnia and some from Edmonton — the country’s two propane trading hubs.
The fuel is critical to powering mining operations and heating facilities from water treatment plants to remote communications towers, though “people only think about it as barbecue,” St-Pierre said.
“There are some farmers that are being told they will not have access to propane to dry their crops, because there are priority applications that need to be taken care of,” she said. “You’re going to have to choose between chickens being alive in a barn versus drying crops.”
Parts of Atlantic Canada may face a shortage as well. “Everybody’s going to start feeling it…It’s going to be more and more critical.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business called for MPs to reconvene in Ottawa if the two sides can’t reach a deal by early next week.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson said the strike comes at a “devastating time for farmers” following a delayed grain crop and early snows.
“Farmers do not receive payment for their products until they reach the port, and the rail strike makes this impossible. This will create huge cash flow problems for farmers, who require these payments to pay off their loans, invest in their operations and prepare for the new year,” Robinson said in a statement.
Conductors, trainpersons and yard workers took to the picket lines early Tuesday morning, halting freight trains across the country.
The railway workers, who have been without a contract since July 23, have said they’re concerned about long hours, fatigue and what they consider dangerous working conditions.
The last CN Rail strike occurred in late 2009 when 1,700 engineers walked off the job for three days.
— with files from Stephanie Taylor