CN Rail strike puts Quebec on propane notice, but Ontario isn’t far behind

Click to play video: 'Farmers in Quebec rally, calling for end to CN Rail strike'
Farmers in Quebec rally, calling for end to CN Rail strike
WATCH: Farmers in Quebec rally, calling for end to CN Rail strike – Nov 22, 2019

The CN Rail workers strike is steering Ontario’s propane supply in the same direction as Quebec’s, industry experts say.

More than 3,000 conductors, yard workers and trainpersons walked off the job Tuesday after the union and railway failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

While ’round-the-clock negotiations continue, no progress has been made.

The strike has already choked output at industrial plants and is putting some of Canada’s agricultural industry at risk.

Click to play video: 'CN Rail strike comes at critical time for farm, oil exports'
CN Rail strike comes at critical time for farm, oil exports

Propane has become a major point of contention.

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Quebec recently sounded the alarm about a propane supply “emergency,” with just days to go before it runs out.

But Ontario’s supply isn’t faring any better, according to Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“Many of our customers have already been notified by their propane suppliers that they’re going to be cut off,” Currie told Global News.

“Given the trade issues and geopolitics that have gone on in the last six to eight months with our products, it’s adding more stress to our already stressed industry.”

Click to play video: 'CN rail workers go on strike'
CN rail workers go on strike

Propane is required to dry harvested crops, like corn and soybeans, for safe storage. Without it, some crops can’t be harvested and could be lost, he said.

“If our crops can’t get harvested and dried, then we lose money, and that’s money not going into the economy,” he said.

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Quebec receives its propane predominately by rail from Sarnia, Ont. In Ontario, there is a “limited amount” supplied by trucks, said Currie, which has helped keep the province above the critical mark — for now.

Ontario, he said, is on the brink of a propane supply “emergency” too.

“From my understanding, there are long, long lineups in Sarnia now of trucks,” he said. “This is not something that we can remedy fast with the exception of the strike being resolved.”

Canadian Propane Association CEO Nathalie St-Pierre agrees.

“It’s critical. It will have serious consequences for farmers,” she said. “There is a 27-rail car minimum a day of propane, and that’s just for Quebec.

As time drags on, the challenges for farmers only increase. Many livestock barns require propane for heating, as do a number of homes in rural Ontario.

“It’s now a welfare issue for both livestock and humans,” he said. “We’re fortunate that it’s not minus 20 degrees yet, but it could change very quickly.

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Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Ernie Hardeman, said he’s been in touch with his federal counterpart, Marie-Claude Bibeau on the matter.

In a statement, he acknowledged the strike has created “more hardship” for Ontario’s farmers already dealing with “deep impacts of a difficult, wet growing season” and called for both sides to come to a quick resolution.

Agriculture isn’t the only sector that will feel the effects.

Propane is commonly used in hospitals and nursing homes as a backup source, St-Pierre said.

It’s also important for construction.

“When you’re building and it’s not completed, you lay tarps and use propane to heat sites to workers can continue the job,” she said. “That’s a big factor in the fall and winter in Ontario.”

Atlantic Canada is also getting squeezed, said St-Pierre.

“There are some areas where there’s no more propane already.”

Click to play video: 'Ford says calling back Parliament won’t end CN strike ‘right away’'
Ford says calling back Parliament won’t end CN strike ‘right away’

CN Rail is operating “at approximately 10 per cent” amid the strike and can transport “very limited amounts of various commodities,” across the country, the company said in a statement.

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However, the union representing CN workers, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, is calling foul on the propane shortage claims.

A spokesperson said the concerns appear to be “largely manufactured” by CN to pressure the Trudeau government to recall parliament early and pass back-to-work legislation.

“While CN is nowhere near operating at full capacity, we think enough trains are running to allow CN to supply Ontario and Quebec with propane,” TCRC president Lyndon Isaak said in a statement.

“We wonder if CN is choosing to not ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis and force back-to-work legislation.”

An extended strike will not only bear economic consequences for the country but exacerbate antipathy swirling in rural and western Canada, Currie said.

“Rural Canada as a whole sent a message to this government that they’re not happy, they’re tired of being ignored. There’s a lot of frustration out there,” he said.

“We knew this strike was imminent. We knew that the government needed to act swiftly and right now, they’re kind of shuffling their feet.

“I’d really like to see them step up their game.”

— With files from the Canadian Press


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