Transport Minister Marc Garneau says the federal government is focusing on finding a negotiated end to the CN Rail strike even as calls for Ottawa to intervene and force workers back on the job grow louder.
But experts say he has no choice than to call for that unless the government wants to recall Parliament early.
“We believe that mediation, collective bargaining is the right way to do this,” Garneau told reporters on Friday.
“We believe this is not only the most probable but also the fastest way to find a solution.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will test the confidence of the House of Commons on Dec. 5, when MPs will gather for the first time since the election to vote on the election of a Speaker of the House of Commons and on a Throne Speech by the government that will lay out its legislative priorities.
The Liberals have also vowed the first bill they will table if they can maintain that confidence will be a tax cut for a middle class.
But stakeholders from across the country have been raising alarm bells about the economic impact of the rail strike and urging Ottawa to take clear action to ensure the strike, now on its fourth day, does not drag on.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault warned on Thursday his province has only days of vital propane left, calling the situation an “emergency” looming for hospitals, nursing homes and farms that rely on the fuel transported by rail.
And the Canadian Federation of Independent Business issued its own warning on Friday morning, saying the small businesses it represents are at risk of significant economic damage if the strike goes on.
“A long strike could really hurt the economy, even trigger layoffs and closures. This is especially true for small businesses, which often have fewer financial resources to weather a long service disruption,” said Dan Kelly, president of the group. “Unfortunately, the current CN strike means that businesses are left with few options to get their products to market, which may result in delayed and cancelled shipments.”
He continued, stressing that while the CFIB wants to see both sides reach an agreement, time is running out before they want to see Ottawa act.
“If the parties cannot reach an agreement by early next week, CFIB calls on the government to resume Parliament and pass back-to-work legislation.”
Trudeau, however, has given no indication he is considering deviating from his planned recall date, which is two weeks away.
And apart from legislation, there is no other way for the federal government to actually act to end the strike, experts say.
“The only way for a government to intervene is through legislation,” said Lior Samfiru, partner with the Ottawa employment law firm Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.
That can take the form of either back-to-work legislation as well as an ordered “cooling off period” to restart negotiations, or designating the service as “essential” in order to make the strike illegal, he said.
“The bottom line is that this all involves the government convening and passing legislation. Certainly, given the current state of the legislature, this poses significant logistical issues. However, short of passing legislation, nothing can be done.”
Philippe Lagasse, an expert on the Canadian parliamentary system and its powers, noted that while the federal government is able to exercise what are known as the Crown prerogative powers without having to go through Parliament — such as military deployment, for example — he has never seen one that he thinks would apply to letting Ottawa force workers back on the job without legislation.
“I’ve never come across a prerogative power that would enable the executive to force workers back to work,” he said.
“You might try to order that the public order prerogative might apply, but military law and the police’s obligations under the common law would already cover those two and I would be hard-pressed to see how you could extend to rail.”
Chris Rootham, an employment law expert and partner with Nelligan O’Brien Payne, was clear on his view when asked as well.
“Short answer: no,” he told Global News.
Rootham said there are limited times when the federal cabinet could issue a decree to end a strike that “adversely affects or would adversely affect the national interest” without going through Parliament. But he noted Section 90 of the Canada Labour Code states that power can only be used when a strike takes place between the dissolution of Parliament and an election.
“We are now outside of that period, so it has to be done by legislation.”